Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting



What’s the difference between David Hahn and Taylor Wilson’s pursuit of science?

Back when the boys in our regular book club were preteens and young teens, one of the books that really caught their attention was The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor by Ken Silverstein. It’s the true tale of David Hahn, a very gifted teen who became obsessed with learning everything he could about nuclear energy. Hahn gathered materials for experiments in all sorts of enterprising ways, even getting his hands on reactor plans. His father and stepmother forbade him from doing further experiments in the house after his efforts resulted in several chemical spills and small explosions. So he moved in with his mother and used her backyard potting shed for a hugely ambitious endeavor: building a model breeder nuclear reactor. His reactor hadn’t reached critical mass when evidence of his project was discovered during a routine traffic stop. That potting shed was deemed a Superfund site and cleaned up by the EPA in 1995.

Something astonished the boys in our group more than Hahn’s extraordinary project.  They couldn’t understand why no one reached out to foster Hahn’s powerful intellect nor guided him to adult scientists who could have more safely helped him explore his interests. Maybe the boys in our group were so surprised because, as homeschoolers, we’d been accustomed to folding science interests into our days as naturally as we ate when hungry. And we’d had great success asking experts to share what they know with interested kids.

Hahn grew up, but didn’t go on to get advanced degrees or research grants. Instead he’s served in the military, been arrested for stealing smoke detectors (a source of the radioactive substance americium), struggled with mental health problems, and still does what he can to pursue his science passions with math skills he says are limited.

Hahn’s experience is radically different from that of another extraordinarily gifted teen who started investigating all things radioactive at an even younger age.

how to raise a gifted child,

Digging up yellowcake. (image permission: Tom Clynes/ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Taylor Wilson, at 14 years old, became “one of only thirty-two individuals on the planet to build a working fusion reactor.”

What’s the difference?

Do scientifically gifted kids advance due to sheer curiosity alone? Or is it absolutely essential to have parents and other adults who foster that curiosity as far as those kids want to go?

That’s a central theme in The Boy Who Played with Fusion: Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting, and How to Make a Star, a book by Tom Clynes about Taylor Wilson.

The book is alarming, especially with the danger inherent in Taylor’s early pyrotechnic and later radioactive projects.

But it’s more alarming to consider how many children are unable to explore their gifts as Taylor and his brother did through their growing up years. The National Association for Gifted Children estimates there are three to five million gifted school aged children in the U.S.  That’s about six to 10 percent of the population. And even in prestigious gifted programs, the emphasis is on college prep, giving very few young people the freedom to explore unusual interests. As Clynes warns,

Everyone’s heard the bright-kid-overcomes-all anecdotes. But the bigger picture, based on decades of data, shows that these children are the rare exceptions. For every such story, there are countless nonstories of other gifted children who were unnoticed, submerged, and forgotten in homes and schools ill-equipped to nurture extraordinary potential.

The book is also inspiring. That’s not due to Taylor’s accomplishments alone. It includes his parents and many other adults who have done everything possible to advance his interests. It’s true, few of us have the business and social connections Taylor’s father could access. He made a few calls to have a full-sized construction crane brought for Taylor’s sixth birthday party and spoke to a senator in order to get his 11-year-old son a tour of a shut-down nuclear reactor.

His parents were also able to connect Taylor with expert mentors. That’s pivotal when most high-achieving adults say having a mentor was vital to their success, yet meaningful mentorship opportunities are scarce in today’s educational environments.

The overall approach Taylor’s parents took is exactly what gifted education specialists prescribe. As Clynes writes, this has to do with “staying involved and supportive without pushing them, letting them take intellectual risks, and connecting them with resources and mentors and experiences that allow them to follow and extend their interests.”

We’ve found that supporting a child’s fascination with science (and every other subject) is about saying yes. It has little to do with spending money, more to do with putting time into expanding on a child’s interests without taking over. Clynes agrees, reminding parents that they play a pivotal role.

…We parents believe our own children deserve exceptional treatment. And the latest science actually supports our intuition that our children are gifted. A growing body of academic research suggests that nearly all children are capable of extraordinary performance in some domain of expertise and that the processes that guide the development of talent are universal; the conditions that allow it to flourish apply across the entire spectrum of intellectual abilities. Parents, the primary creators of a child’s environment, are the most important catalysts of intellectual development. While there’s no single right way to rear a gifted kid, talent-development experts say there are best practices for nurturing a child’s gifts in ways that lead to high achievement and happiness.

Here are some of those best practices.

  • Starting young, expose children to all sorts of places. “Early novel experiences play an important role in shaping the brain systems that enable effective learning, creativity, self-regulation, and task commitment.” (It’s notable that Taylor’s experiences were nearly all hands-on, especially in his early years.)
  • Pay attention to signs of strong interest, then offer the freedom to explore those passions. Studies show strong interests are often fleeting windows of opportunity for talent development that may fizzle if the child doesn’t have opportunities to cultivate them. “Don’t be afraid to pull your kids out of school to give them an especially rich and deep learning experience, especially when it relates to something they’re curious about.”
  • Don’t worry if strong passions don’t develop early on. The learning process has a way of taking off on its own whenever kids find a passion.
  • The major role for parents of children with intellectual or other passions is to facilitate, not push, by connecting them with resources that continue to expand on that interest. Emphasize opportunities for hands-on experience.

Taylor has gone on to develop a prototype that can more inexpensively produce isotopes for medical use and a radiation detector that will more easily secure borders against nuclear terrorists. He is now 21 years old and a recipient of a two-year Thiel Fellowship. Rights to a movie based on his story have already been acquired.

Clynes closes the last page with this reminder.

Whether we use it or not, we have the recipe…parents who are courageous enough to give their children wings and let them fly in the directions they choose; schools that support children as individuals; a society that understands the difference between elitism and individualized education and that addresses the needs of kids at all levels.


Talent, steered toward accomplishment. (image permission: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Evoking the State of Flow

state of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, rapt absorption, learning through flow, advance learning with flow,

CC by 2.0 Jonf728’s flickr photostream

Flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”   ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

My daughter spent much of this week with a deer skeleton she found in the woods.

As she searched the site she was thrilled to find most bones intact. I wasn’t at all involved beyond providing toothbrushes and bleach to clean them.

Today she’s reassembling the skeleton in the driveway. She shows me how the back legs fit into the hip sockets, giving the deer power to leap and run while the front legs are mostly held on by bone and connective tissue.

She points out that the spine is somewhat similar to a human spine in the lower thoracic and upper lumbar regions, but very different where the large cervical vertebrae come in.

I know so little about this topic that I forget what she’s telling me while she speaks.

Handling the bones carefully, she faithfully reconstructs the skeleton. She’s so deeply engrossed in the project that she hasn’t come in for lunch or bothered to put on a jacket to ward off the chill.

Her interests are far different than mine, but I know what it’s like to be this captivated.

You know the feeling too. You become so absorbed in something that time scurries by without your notice. Your whole being is engrossed by the project. You feel invigorated.

Skiers call it becoming “one with the mountain.” Athletes call it being in the “zone.” Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has termed it the “state of flow.”

In this marvelous state the boundaries between you and your experience seem fluid, as if you are merging with what you’re doing. The more opportunities any of us have to immerse ourselves in activities we love, especially those that stretch us to our full capacities, the more capable and centered we feel in other areas of our lives.

Photo by Claire Weldon

Children, especially the youngest ones, slide into flow effortlessly. While playing they concentrate so fully that they lose sense of themselves, of time, even of discomfort. They’re inherently drawn to full-on engagement. As Csikszentmihalyi explains in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,

Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.

For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”

Kids demonstrate flow when they’re eagerly drawing, building, climbing, pretending, reading, exploring—-however rapt involvement captures them. Their intent focus makes a mockery of what is supposedly a child’s developmental handicap — a short attention span.

Flow truly puts a person in the moment. No wonder it can be hard for our kids when we call them away from what they’re doing to what we deem more important. No wonder they might be more enthusiastic about playing with Legos than taking part in a structured geometry lesson.

Imposing too many of our grown-up preoccupations on kids can teach them to block the experience of flow.

What do we need to remember about this state?

Flow is typically triggered:

  1. when a person’s abilities are stretched nearly to their limits
  2. during a self-chosen pursuit
  3. when they are looking to accomplish something worthwhile to them.

These characteristics are also the way we’re primed to learn from infancy on. It’s been called the Goldilocks Effect. This means we are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for us. Not too big a challenge, not too little, but something that sparks our interest and holds it close to the edge of our abilities, moving us toward greater mastery.

That’s pretty much the way science, art, and other major human endeavors happen too. Flow may indeed be our natural state.

Public domain by Cheryl Holt.

How do we encourage flow?

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are some ways to allow more flow in your kids’ lives (and yours too!).

  • Foster a calm, relaxed environment.
  • Engage in what brings out delighted fascination. If you’re not sure what that is, fool around with something hands-on. Tinker, paint, write, sculpt with clay, take something apart, dance, experiment—-whatever feels enticing.
  • Let go of worry and pressure.
  • Welcome mistakes as well as challenges.
  • As much as possible, don’t interrupt.
  • Remember that flow isn’t really separate from play.

The outcome of flow?

  • Deepened learning and stronger confidence.
  • A drive toward complexity, luring us to increase challenges, broaden our range of abilities, even face anxiety and boredom as we access an ever more profound state of engagement. (As A Playful Path author Bernie DeKoven explains here.)
  • Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s work tells us achieving the flow state regularly is a key component of happiness.

That’s vital, even if it means you end up with a deer skeleton in your driveway.

Post first published on the wonderful site, Simple Homeschool.

Portions of this post are excerpted from Free Range Learning

The Benefits of Natural Math

natural math, exploratory math, hands-on learning,

images: public-domain-image.com

Math as it’s used by the vast majority of people around the world is actually applied math. It’s directly related to how we work and play in our everyday lives. In other words it’s useful, interesting, even fun.

We now know babies as young as five months old show a strong understanding of certain mathematical principles. Their comprehension continues to advance almost entirely through hands-on experience. Math is implicit in play, music, art, dancing, make-believe, building and taking apart, cooking, and other everyday activities. Only after a child has a strong storehouse of direct experience, which includes the ability to visualize, can he or she readily grasp more abstract mathematical concepts. As Einstein said, “If I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it.”

As parents, we believe we’re providing a more direct route to success when we begin math (and other academic) instruction at a young age. Typically we do this with structured enrichment programs, educational iPad games, academic preschools, and other forms of adult-directed early education. Unfortunately we’re overlooking how children actually learn.

Real learning has to do with curiosity, exploration, and body-based activities. Recent studies with four-year-olds found, “Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning.” Direct instruction also limits a child’s creativity, problem solving, and openness to ideas beyond the situation at hand. Studies show kids readily understand math when they develop a “number sense,” the ability to use numbers flexibly. This doesn’t come from memorization but instead from relaxed, enjoyable exploratory work with math concepts. In fact, math experts tell us methods such as flash cards, timed tests, and repetitive worksheets are not only unhelpful, but damaging. Teaching math in ways that are disconnected from a child’s life is like teaching music theory without letting them plunk piano keys, or instructing them in the principles of sketching without supplying paper or crayons. It simply makes no sense.

One study followed children from age three to age 10. The most statistically significant predictors of math achievement had very little to do with instruction. Instead the top factors were the mother’s own educational achievements and a high quality home learning environment. That sort of home environment included activities like being read to, going to the library, playing with numbers, painting and drawing, learning letters and numbers, singing and chanting rhymes. These positive effects were as significant for low-income children as they were for high income children.

There’s another key difference between kids who excel at math and kids who don’t. It’s not intelligence. Instead it’s related to what researcher Carol Dweck terms a growth-mindset. Dweck says we adopt certain self-perceptions early on. Some of us have a fixed mindset. We believe our intelligence is static. Successes confirm this belief in our inherent ability, mistakes threaten it. People with a fixed mindset may avoid challenges and reject higher goals for fear of disproving their inherent talent or intelligence.  People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, understand that intelligence and ability are built through practice. People with this outlook are more likely to embrace new challenges and recognize that mistakes provide valuable learning experience. (For more on this, read about the inverse power of praise.)

Rather than narrowing math education to equations on the board (or worksheet or computer screen) we can allow mathematics to stay as alive as it is when used in play, in work, in the excitement of exploration we call curiosity. Math happens as kids move, discuss, and yes, argue among themselves as they try to find the best way to construct a fort, set up a Rube Goldberg machine, keep score in a made-up game, divvy out equal portions of pizza, choreograph a comedy skit, map out a scavenger hunt, decide whose turn it is to walk the dog, or any number of other playful possibilities. These math-y experiences provide instant feedback. For example, it’s obvious cardboard tubes intended to make a racing chute for toy cars don’t fit together unless cut at corresponding angles. Think again, try again, and voila, it works!

As kids get more and more experience solving real world challenges, they not only begin to develop greater mathematical mastery, they’re also strengthening the ability to look at things from different angles, work collaboratively, apply logic, learn from mistakes, and think creatively. Hands-on math experience and an understanding of oneself as capable of finding answers— these are the portals to enjoying and understanding computational math.

Unfortunately we don’t have a big data pool of students who learn math without conventional instruction. This fosters circular reasoning. We assume structured math instruction is essential, the earlier the better, and if young people don’t master what’s taught exactly as it’s taught we conclude they need more math instruction. (“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”)

But there are inspiring examples of students who aren’t formally instructed yet master the subject matter easily, naturally, when they’re ready.

1. The experiment done over 85 years ago by Louis Benezet showed how elementary school children can blossom when they’re free of structured math instruction.

2. Homeschooling and unschooling families around the world devote much less time to formal mathematics instruction. Studies indicate their children grow up to succeed in college, careers, and life with greater self-reliance and focus than their schooled peers. Interestingly, two different surveys of grown unschoolers showed that a much higher number of them work in STEM careers than schooled adults. The samples were small but intriguing. More proof? Many of our greatest science, technology, engineering, and mathematics contributors have already emerged from the homeschool community.

3. Democratic schools where children are free to spend their time as they choose without required classes, grades, or tests. As teacher Daniel Greenberg wrote in a chapter titled “And ‘Rithmetic” in his book Free at Last, a group of students at the Sudbury Valley School approached him saying they wanted to learn arithmetic. He tried to dissuade them, explaining that they’d need to meet twice a week for hour and a half each session, plus do homework. The students agreed. In the school library, Greenberg found a math book written in 1898 that was perfect in its simplicity. Memorization, exercises, and quizzes were not ordinarily part of the school day for these students, but they arrived on time, did their homework, and took part eagerly. Greenberg reflects, “In twenty weeks, after twenty contact hours, they had covered it all. Six year’s worth. Every one of them knew the material cold.” A week later he described what he regarded as a miracle to a friend, Alan White, who had worked as a math specialist in public schools. White wasn’t surprised. He said, “…everyone knows that the subject matter itself isn’t that hard. What’s hard, virtually impossible, is beating it into the heads of youngsters who hate every step. The only way we have a ghost of a chance is to hammer away at the stuff bit by bit every day for years. Even then it does not work. Most of the sixth graders are mathematical illiterates. Give me a kid who wants to learn the stuff—well, twenty hours or so makes sense.”

We know all too well that students can be educated for the test, yet not understand how to apply that information. They can recite multiplication tables without knowing when and how to use multiplication itself in the real world. Rote learning doesn’t build proficiency let alone nurture the sort of delight that lures students to higher, ever more abstract math.

Conventional math education may also limit our concept of what math can do. As Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin notes in a post titled “Most Math Problems Do Not Have a Unique Right Answer,”

One of the most widely held misconceptions about mathematics is that a math problem has a unique correct answer…

Having earned my living as a mathematician for over 40 years, I can assure you that the belief is false. In addition to my university research, I have done mathematical work for the U. S. Intelligence Community, the U.S. Army, private defense contractors, and a number of for-profit companies. In not one of those projects was I paid to find “the right answer.” No one thought for one moment that there could be such a thing.

So what is the origin of those false beliefs? It’s hardly a mystery. People form that misconception because of their experience at school. In school mathematics, students are only exposed to problems that (a) are well defined, (b) have a unique correct answer, and (c) whose answer can be obtained with a few lines of calculation.

Interestingly, people who rely on mental computation every day demonstrate the sort of adroitness that doesn’t fit into our models of math competence. In a New York Times article titled “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” author Elizabeth Green (who defines the term “unschooled” as people who have little formal education) writes,

Observing workers at a Baltimore dairy factory in the ‘80s, the psychologist Sylvia Scribner noted that even basic tasks required an extensive amount of math. For instance, many of the workers charged with loading quarts and gallons of milk into crates had no more than a sixth-grade education. But they were able to do math, in order to assemble their loads efficiently, that was “equivalent to shifting between different base systems of numbers.” Throughout these mental calculations, errors were “virtually nonexistent.” And yet when these workers were out sick and the dairy’s better-educated office workers filled in for them, productivity declined.

The unschooled may have been more capable of complex math than people who were specifically taught it, but in the context of school, they were stymied by math they already knew. Studies of children in Brazil, who helped support their families by roaming the streets selling roasted peanuts and coconuts, showed that the children routinely solved complex problems in their heads to calculate a bill or make change. When cognitive scientists presented the children with the very same problem, however, this time with pen and paper, they stumbled. A 12-year-old boy who accurately computed the price of four coconuts at 35 cruzeiros each was later given the problem on paper. Incorrectly using the multiplication method he was taught in school, he came up with the wrong answer. Similarly, when Scribner gave her dairy workers tests using the language of math class, their scores averaged around 64 percent. The cognitive-science research suggested a startling cause of Americans’ innumeracy: school.

And Keith Devlin explains in The Math Gene that we’re schooled to express math in formal terms, but that’s not necessary for most of us—no matter what careers we choose. People who rely on mental math in their everyday lives are shown to have an accuracy rate around 98 percent, yet when they’re challenged to do the same math symbolically their performance is closer to 37 percent.

We have the idea that memorizing, practicing, and testing is the only way to higher achievement. It’s hard to imagine why we still believe that when studies show that high test scores in school don’t correlate with adult accomplishments (but do line up with interpersonal immaturity).

There are all sorts of ways to advance mathematical understanding. That includes, but isn’t limited to, traditional curricula. It’s time to broaden our approach. Let’s offer the next generation a more intrinsically fascinating, more applied relationship to math. Let’s foster analytical and critical thinking skills across all fields. The future is waiting.

This article is one in a series of three on natural math. 

Math Instruction versus Natural Math: Benezet’s Experiment. What happened when formal math instruction was eliminated? 

Natural Math: 100+ Activities and Resources. Finding and learning from math in daily life. 

Portions of this article are excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Response to Kids’ Misbehavior: “Good Old Days” vs. Now

older generation of kids, historical comparison of children,

Learning from earlier generations. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

Unable to find a job in my field after college, I ended up working as a nursing home activity director. It was the best job in the place. Unlike overworked staff in other departments, I had time to form real relationships with the residents. This was 25-some years ago (yes, I’m that old). Our 100 bed unit was brimming with people too frail to care for themselves but most were otherwise mentally acute. (Not one patient with today’s unnecessary plague, Alzheimer’s disease.)

These elders were in their 80’s and 90’s, born around the 1900’s or slightly before, and always happily reminisced with someone willing to listen. They were extraordinary teachers and gave me perspectives I could have encountered nowhere else. One angle new to me was how differently childhood was viewed by adults back when they were growing up.

Kids worked hard then. They were expected to do heavy chores at home as well as work on the family farm or family business. Some even held jobs in factories. But when their obligations were over they were entirely free. They roamed the streets or woods with their peers, improvised games, put on their own skits and plays, made playthings like twig whistles and soapbox cars, built forts, swung from vines into swimming holes, and indulged in make-believe well into their early teens. They skirted around the adult world in a realm of their own, as children have done throughout human history.

criminalizing children, school-to-prison pipeline,

Costumed kids, skit to come. (image: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries)

I’m not implying that childhood was remotely easy back then. Aside from hard work there seemed to be very little recognition of a child’s emotional needs. Worse, it was a time of blatant racial, gender, ethnic, and class discrimination. But I’d like to point out that when these elders were kids back in 1910’s and 1920’s many of them caused real trouble. Here are a few of the more extreme stories they told me.

Halloween was a holiday with no real adult involvement or interest. That night kids of all ages went out trick-or-treating, knowing they weren’t likely to get a treat (cookie or apple) from most neighbors. Preteens or teens often played tricks to retaliate. Soaping windows was the mildest trick they described. Most were much worse. Wooden steps were pulled away from doors, gravestones left in yards, pigs let out of pens, fires set in dry cornfields ready for harvest, water pumped into basements. One man told me he and his friends put an elderly widow’s buggy on top of her back porch roof. It wasn’t till a few days later that her plight was noticed and someone strong enough to help could get it down. A common Halloween prank was lifting an outhouse a foot or so to the side. In the dark, an unsuspecting person heading out to use it was likely to fall into the hole.

A 14-year-old stole whiskey from a bootlegger and got shot at as he ran off. Another bootlegger was blamed and never seen again.

A 15-year-old took her older sister’s papers booking passage on a ship to the U.S., saying her sister could better look after their family back home. Once she arrived, she worked as a cook for a family that paid for the ticket, answered to her sisters name, married under that name, and gained citizenship under that name. Her sister used the same name back in Ireland all that time.

There were plenty of other stories. Public drunkenness, fist fights that turned into brawls, runaways who rode the rails and runaways who got married against their parents’ wishes, shoplifting, breaking into school offices to change grades and steal tests, and one story of a school riot over a change in dismissal time.

These people suffered no appreciable consequences from authorities.

Not. One. Of. Them.

Their parents were certainly angry if they found out. The usual punishment? More chores. If police were informed they gave the kids a talking to, in the most extreme cases put them in the back of a squad car for a more serious talking to at the police station. No charges. No jail time. No record of their misdeeds beyond a local cop’s memory. Back then, it was assumed that kids would grow out of it.

All of these people grew up to work stable jobs and own homes. Most were married until death parted them from their spouses. One was a judge, one a career military officer, several were in the skilled trades, several others were business owners, many were homemakers and tireless volunteers, nearly all were proud parents of highly accomplished children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Yet today’s kids are being criminalized.

I’m not for a moment defending any young person’s impulse to wreak mayhem at home or in the community. I am saying that today’s response to (far less drastic) behaviors common during any child’s growing up years is appalling.

These days armed officers roam schools in thousands of districts. Studies show their presence doesn’t actually improve safety. Instead, children are often treated like criminals for common disciplinary issues such as yelling, swearing, or pushing. Here are a few of the more extreme examples.

A seventeen-year-old girl spent 24 hours in jail for truancy. This honors student works two jobs to help support her family and can’t always get to school.

A six-year old boy and avid Cub Scout was suspended for five days after bringing to school his Cub Scout eating utensil containing a fork, spoon, and knife. Due to public pressure, the school board voted to spare him the other punishment he’d received: 45 days in reform school.

A thirteen-year-old boy was handcuffed, arrested, and transported from school to a Juvenile Detention Center although his parents weren’t notified. His crime? He “burped audibly” in gym class.

A twelve-year-old girl was arrested for doodling on a desk with a green marker.

A seventeen-year-old boy who broke up a fight between two girls was shot with a taser by a deputy on duty at the school. The young man suffered a brain hemorrhage, spent 67 days in intensive care, and remains brain injured. The officer wasn’t charged due to lack of evidence.

The Guardian interviewed Deborah Fowler, who authored a 200-page study of the consequences of policing in Texas schools. They report,

…most schools do not face any serious threat of violence and police officers patrolling the corridors and canteens are largely confronted with little more than boisterous or disrespectful childhood behavior.

What we see often is a real overreaction to behavior that others would generally think of as just childish misbehavior rather than law breaking,” said Fowler. Tickets are most frequently issued by school police for “disruption of class,” which can mean causing problems during lessons but is also defined as disruptive behavior within 500 ft of school property such as shouting, which is classified as “making an unreasonable noise.”

Minority students are much more likely to be disciplined, fined, or arrested than white students in what’s being called the school-to-prison pipeline. Huge corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and smaller companies like AIM Truancy Solutions lobby for get-tough policies that bring them big profits in tax-payer money.

In some states tickets are issued, even in primary grades. These citations may compel the student to appear in court to face sentences including fines, court costs, and mandatory participation in remedial programs. This means the child is now entered into the judicial system, with police or court records that may or may not be sealed. If students don’t appear or their families can’t afford the fines, an arrest warrant may automatically be issued when they turn 17. This means childish misbehavior can follow young people into their adult lives. There’s a common question on applications for college, the military, and employment “Have you ever been charged with a crime?”  The answer, for these kids, is “yes.”

Heavy-handed tactics used against children may get worse very soon. School districts in 22 states including Texas, California, Florida, Kansas, and Utah are participating in a federal program which provides military surplus to local law enforcement organizations. We’re talking gear like assault rifles, extended magazines, military vehicles, and other weapons intended for combat.

What happened to free range childhood? Why do we act as if every choice a child makes must be the correct one? That risks are always too risky? That freedom of any kind equals danger?

The goal of creating high-achieving young people through unremitting scrutiny, at times backed up by force, is wrong. But today’s treatment of young people isn’t even based on evidence. Ask any high-achieving adult about their youthful high jinks. Better yet, ask the oldest people still left to us. A long look back may be the cure we need.

“We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self-control.”  inscription in an Ancient Egyptian tomb

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless… When I was young we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly unwise and impatient.”   -Hesiod, 8th century BC 

“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest, and unladylike in speech, behavior, and dress.”   -Peter the Hermit, sermon preached 1274 AD

what your great-grandparents did, oral history,

What our elders can tell us. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

Recognizing Each Child’s Particular Genius


Free Range Learning, children's gifts,

A child’s gifts can be difficult to recognize, perhaps because they tend to unfold in mysterious ways. What we might consider idiosyncrasies or problems may very well indicate a child’s strengths. Oftentimes we can’t see the whole picture until long after the child has grown into adulthood. It’s worth remembering we can’t easily see our own gifts either, even though they have whispered to us of destiny or wounded us where they were denied.

A little girl creates chaos with her toys. She won’t put blocks away with other blocks nor put socks in her dresser drawer. As a preschooler she creates groupings that go together with logic only she understands. One such collection is made up of red blocks, a striped sock, spoons, and marbles. She sings to herself while she rearranges these items over and over. The girl is punished when she refuses to put her puzzles away in the correct box or her tea set dishes back together. She continues making and playing with these strangely ordered sets but hides them to avoid getting in trouble. This phase passes when she is about nine years old. Now an adult, she is conducting post-doctoral studies relating to string theory. She explains her work as a physicist has to do with finding common equations among disparate natural forces.

A young boy’s high energy frustrates his parents. As a preschooler he climbs on furniture and curtain rods, even repeatedly tries to scale the kitchen cabinets. When he becomes a preteen he breaks his collarbone skateboarding. He is caught shoplifting at 13. His parents are frightened when he says he “only feels alive on the edge.” Around the age of 15 he becomes fascinated with rock-climbing. His fellow climbers, mostly in their 20’s, also love the adrenaline rush that comes from adventure sports but help him gain perspective about his responsibility to himself and other climbers. His ability to focus on the cliff face boosts his confidence on the ground. At 19 he is already certified as a mountain search and rescue volunteer. He is thinking of going to school to become an emergency medical technician.

James Hillman explains in his book, The Soul’s Code,

I want us to envision that what children go through has to do with finding a place in the world for their specific calling. They are trying to live two lives at once, the one they were born with and the one of the place and among the people they were born into. The entire image of a destiny is packed into a tiny acorn, the seed of a huge oak on small shoulders. And its call rings loud and persistent and is as demanding as any scolding voice from the surroundings. The call shows in the tantrums and obstinacies, in the shyness and retreats, that seem to set the child against our world but that may be protections of the world it comes with and comes from.

Itzhak Perlman, one of the preeminent violinists of our time, became fascinated when he heard classical music on the radio as a three-year-old. He wanted to feel the same rich notes coming out of a violin in his hands. His parents lovingly presented him with a toy fiddle when he was four. He drew the bow across the strings and was horrified at the cheap squawk the toy made. Enraged, he threw the instrument across the room and broke it. His imagination had already taken him to the place in himself where beautiful music was made and he was unable to bear that awful sound. We normally call that behavior a “tantrum.”

Then there’s R. Buckminster Fuller, whose young adult years were marked with struggle. As a college student he hired an entire dance troupe to entertain a party, and in that one night of excess he squandered all the tuition money his family saved to send him to school. In his 20’s he was a mechanic, meat-packer, and Navy commander before starting a business that left him bankrupt. After his daughter died of polio he began drinking heavily. By conventional wisdom he’d be considered a total failure at this point. But while contemplating suicide, Fuller decided instead to live his life as an experiment to find out if one penniless individual could benefit humanity. He called himself Guinea Pig B. Without credentials or training Fuller worked as an engineer and architect, inventing such designs as the geodesic dome and advancing the concept of sustainable development. He wrote more than 30 books and registered dozens of patents. Fuller once said, “Everybody is born a genius. Society de-geniuses them.”

Few young people have clear indications of their gifts. Most have multiple abilities. A single true calling is rarely anyone’s lot in life as it is for a legendary artist or inventor. Instead, a mix of ready potential waits, offering a life of balance among many options. When we emphasize a child’s particular strengths we help that child to flourish, no matter if those gifts fall within mainstream academic subjects or broader personal capacities. Traits such as a highly developed sense of justice, a way with animals, a love of organization, a contemplative nature, the knack for getting others to cooperate—-these are of inestimable value, far more important skills than good grades on a spelling test.

Free Range Learning,  all kids geniuses,

Although society confuses genius with IQ scores, such scores don’t determine what an individual will do with his or her intelligence. In fact, studies have shown that specific personality traits are better predictors of success than I.Q. scores. Genius has more to do with using one’s gifts. In Roman mythology each man was seen as having a genius within (and each woman its corollary, a juno) which functioned like a guardian of intellectual powers or ancestral talent.

What today’s innovators bring to any discipline, whether history or art or technology, is a sort of persistent childlike wonder. They are able to see with fresh eyes. They can’t be dissuaded from what they want to do and often what they do is highly original. Sometimes these people have a difficult personal journey before using their gifts. Their paths are not easy or risk-free, but the lessons learned from making mistakes can lead to strength of character.

We must leave ample space for these gifts to unfold. This takes time and understanding. The alternative deprives not only the child, it also deprives our world of what that child might become.

Acknowledging that each person is born with innate abilities waiting to manifest doesn’t imply our children are destined for greatness in the popular sense of power or wealth. It means that children are cued to develop their own personal greatness. This unfolding is a lifelong process for each of us as we work toward our capabilities for fulfillment, joy, health, meaning, and that intangible sense of well-being that comes of using one’s gifts.


This article is an excerpt from the book Free Range Learning. It was also published in Life Learning Magazine

Five Ways to Transcend the School Mindset


School-like instruction has been around less than a fraction of one percent of the time we humans have been on earth. Yet humanity has thrived. That’s because we’re all born to be free range learners. We are born motivated to explore, play, emulate role models, challenge ourselves, make mistakes and try again—continually gaining mastery. That’s how everyone learns to walk and talk. That’s how young people have become capable adults throughout history. And that’s how we have advanced the arts, sciences, and technology. In the long view, school is the experiment.

But it’s hard to see beyond the school mindset because most of us went to school in our formative years. So when we think of education, we tend to view school as the standard even if we simultaneously realize that many parts of that model (found also in daycare, preschool, kids’ clubs, and enrichment programs) aren’t necessarily beneficial. Narrowing the innate way we learn can interfere with the full development of our gifts.

Here are five ways to get past the school mindset.

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Welcome divergent thinking

In today’s test-heavy schools the emphasis is on coming up with the correct answer, but we know that the effort to avoid making mistakes steers children away from naturally innovative perspectives. Divergent thinking generates ideas. It’s associated with people who are persistent, curious, and nonconforming. Research going back to the 1970’s shows that this generation of children are less imaginative and less able to produce original ideas. An extra whammy may very well be coming from increased participation in organized sports: more than a few hours a week appears to lower a child’s creativity.

This is dire news, because creativity is actually much more closely linked to adult accomplishment than IQ. In fact, 1,500 CEO’s listed creativity as the leading indicator of “leadership competency.”

We don’t have to instruct kids in divergent thinking, just nurture it. Children are naturally inclined to question and explore. Remain open to their enthusiasms, encourage them to identify and solve problems no matter how unusual, and welcome the learning power of mistakes.

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Value full body learning

School-like learning emphasizes the brain over the body. It narrows from there, emphasizing one hemisphere of the brain over the other with its focuses on left-brain analytical thinking. But children don’t learn easily when they spend so much time sitting still, eyes focused on a teacher or lesson or screen, their curiosity silenced and their movements limited. Children ache for more active involvement.

Research shows us that the rules necessary to keep a classroom full of kids in order all day, like being quiet and sitting still, can overtax a child’s ability to resist other impulses. The mismatch between school-like expectations and normal childhood development has resulted in millions of children being diagnosed with ADHD. (One of those kids was my third child, whose “symptoms” disappeared once we took him out of school and figured out how to homeschool such an active child.) 

What we need to remember is that the mind and body are exquisitely tuned to work together. Movement allows sensory input to stimulate the brain as it absorbs a flood of information. This is the way the brain builds new neural pathways, locking learning into memory. (Check out A Moving Child Is a Learning Child by Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy as well as Spark by John J. Ratey for more on this.) Active, talkative, curious children aren’t “bad.” They’re normal.

If we look at movement we realize that even a very brain-y activity, reading, has to do with the body. Young children develop reading readiness in a variety of ways, including conversation and being read to, but also through physical activities that help their neurological pathways mature. These are activities children will do whenever given the opportunity, like swinging, skipping, climbing, walking, and swimming.

All the relentless activity of early childhood may very well be a sort of intrinsic wisdom built into them, because movement is key to keeping an active brain. Children who are more physically active actually increase the areas of their brains necessary for learning and memory. That doesn’t mean the antidote to the school mindset is a constant frenzy of activity. It does mean that children tend to self-regulate within loving safeguards. Every child needs to balance physical activity with other essentials like snuggling, daydreaming, and sufficient sleep. We simply need to remember that movement isn’t an enemy of education.

goldilocks effect, individualized education,

Build on the “Goldilocks effect”

This term came from researchers who demonstrate that we are cued to ignore information that’s too simple or too complex. Instead we’re drawn to and best able learn from situations that are “just right.” Sort of like the educational equivalent of Goldilocks on a porridge-testing quest.

The Goldilocks effect means you are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for you right now.  Usually that means something that sparks your interest and holds it close to the edge of your abilities, encouraging you to push yourself to greater mastery. That’s the principle used to hold a player’s attention in video games. That’s what inspires artists, musicians, and athletes to ever greater accomplishments. That’s how kids who follow a passion of their own tend to learn and retain more than any prepared lesson could teach them.

Our kids tell what they’re ready to learn. They tell us through what bores them and fascinates them, what they’re drawn to and what they resist. They’re telling us that, until they’re ready, learning doesn’t stick.

 too much adult-run learning, stubborn kids, child-led learning, natural learning,

Diminish the focus on instruction

The school mindset leads us to believe that children benefit from lessons, the newest educational toys and electronics, coached sports at an early age, and other adult-designed, adult-led endeavors. Well-intentioned parents work hard to provide their children with these pricey advantages. We do this because we believe that learning flows from instruction. By that logic the more avenues of adult-directed learning, the more kids will benefit. But there’s very limited evidence that all this effort, time, and money results in learning of any real value. In fact, it appears too many structured activities diminish a child’s ability to set and reach goals independently. 

When we interfere too much with natural learning, children show us with stubbornness or disinterest that real education has very little to do with instruction. Learning has much more to do with curiosity, exploration, problem solving, and innovation. For example, if baby encounters a toy she’s never seen before, she will investigate to figure out the best way or a number of different ways to use it. That is, unless an adult demonstrates how to use it. Then all those other potential avenues tend to close and the baby is less likely to find multiple creative ways to use that toy.

Studies show that “helpful” adults providing direct instruction actually impede a child’s innate drive to creatively solve problems. This experience is repeated thousands of times a year in a child’s life, teaching her to look to authorities for solutions, and is known to shape more linear, less creative thinking.

This isn’t to say that all instruction is bad, by any means. It does mean that six long hours of school-based instruction plus afterschool adult-organized activities in sports or recreation or screen time supplants the kind of direct, open-ended, hands-on activity that’s more closely associated with learning. Most of the time this kind of learning is called play.

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Recognize free play is learning 

Before a young child enters any form of schooling, his approach to as much of life as possible is playful. A walk is play, looking at a bug is play, listening to books being read is play, helping with chores is play. The school mindset separates what is deemed “educational” from the rest of a child’s experience. It leads us to believe that learning is specific, measurable, and best managed by experts.

A divide appears where before there was a seamless whole. Playful absorption in any activity is on one side in opposition to work and learning on another. This sets the inherent joy and meaning in all these things adrift. The energy that formerly prompted a child to explore, ask questions, and eagerly leap ahead becomes a social liability in school. But play is essential for kids, for teens, for all of us. (For more check out these two marvelous and very different books: Free to Learn by Peter Gray and A Playful Path by Bernie DeKoven.)

Free play promotes self-regulation and this is a biggie. It means the ability to control behavior, resist impulse, and exert self-control  —all critical factors in maturity. Play fosters learning in realms such as language, social skills, and spatial relations. It teaches a child to adapt, innovate, handle stress, and think independently. Even attention span increases in direct correlation to play.

That doesn’t mean a child’s entire day must be devoted to free play. There’s also a great deal to be learned from meaningful involvement in household responsibilities as well as community service.

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I want to nurture my children in such a way that they define success on their own terms. I hope that means they craft a life based on integrity, one that brings their unique gifts to the world. Homeschooling, for my family, gives us the freedom to go beyond narrow roads to success. (Democratic schools can also provide that freedom.) This is the way young people have learned throughout time. I’ve come to trust the way it works for my family.

Portions of this post excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Does Your Name Make Life Better?

name prejudice, baby names for success, racial profiling names, anagrams,

Image CC by 2.0 kaatjevervoort

When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher often assigned a game. We were challenged to make as many different words as we could using the letters found in a word or phrase. Around President’s Day we’d have to use “George Washington.” When studying botany, we were given “photosynthesis,” and so on. Each time, my classmates groaned. I loved it. As the teacher wrote our contributions on the board I’d stay quiet until everyone else ran out of ideas. Then, even though it defined me as a word nerd, I raised my hand to add a few more (or ten more).

A few months into the school year the teacher came up with the idea of using a student’s name on his or her birthday. It was an awful idea. Anatomy and body function words popped up easily using names like Samantha, Christopher, and Stephanie. Some of those names, silly or gross, stuck on the playground too.

Names are so personal that we actually prefer the individual letters in our names. It’s called the name-letter effect. Research shows when asked to pick several favorite letters from the alphabet, people invariably pick letters found in their names. They also prefer brands that start with the same letters as their initials. This has a far-reaching effect. Studies show that people are disproportionately likely to work in careers matching their name initials or that sound like their names. They’re also more likely to live in a city with a name similar to their own first or last name.

Names have an impact on how others perceive us. For example, names expose us to racial profiling. In a study titled, “Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” it was shown that job applicants with white-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to get an interview than those with names perceived as African-American. The best resumes offered little help. Applicants with high quality resumes and white-sounding names got 30 percent more interview callbacks than those with lower-quality resumes. But for applicants with African-American names, the same credentials bump only gave them a nine percent boost over lower quality resumes.

Racial profiling may have spread to Google, perhaps reflecting bias in society. A study of advertisements appearing on Google in relation to name searches showed certain names were 25 percent more likely to return results advertising criminal record sites. For example, searching for a news story about a school athlete with a name commonly perceived as African-American was much more likely to appear with results displaying ads with the child’s first name and the word “Arrested?”—Yes, really.

Unusual names are certainly popular with celebrities. Witness Jamie Oliver’s kids: Petal Blossom Rainbow, Daisy Boo Pamela, Poppy Honey Rose, and Buddy Bear Maurice. Or, David Duchovny and Tea Leoni’s son, Kyd. Or, Ashlee Simpson’s son, Bronx Mowgli. Or, Nicolas Cage’s son, Kal-El. You know I could go on. High status may easily make up for an unusual name, although in general, oddly spelled or atypical names tend to cause problems. That means you, parents who call your babies Siri, Mac, and other technology names. 

According to Freakonomics, first names gradually move down in social class. Upper classes adopt newer names initially (according to the book, the wealthy launched names like Amber, Brittany, and Crystal). Once those names enter common usage, the upper classes shift their preferences to other first names. But overall, the wealthy are very conservative about name choices, particularly avoiding odd or creatively spelled names. (Check out name popularity over time in the U.S. using BabyNameWizard or the Social Security site.)

And a new study determined that people with easy-to-pronounce names are judged more positively. They’re more likely to get special treatment from teachers and employers. This means better grades, easier hires, and faster job promotions.

It’s not just the name itself, it’s where the name falls in the alphabet. Economists looked to find a relationship between last names and academic prominence. They discovered people with surnames close to the beginning of the alphabet were much more likely to have upper level positions, even more likely to win a Nobel Prize. This may have something to do with the way names are listed on many academic papers: alphabetically. Attention may fall disproportionately on the first name or two rather than equally on all co-authors. People with names earliest in the alphabet may also be accustomed to being first in line at school and first to be called for job interviews. It was noted that, of the 15,000 people in the study, the farther down in the alphabet their surname appeared the less likely they were to be successful.

It might be easy to blame a few of my career disappointments on the alphabetical position of my surname, down at the bottom with the W’s. But as the studies predict, I’m actually quite fond of  ”W” and “L.” Also, perhaps because my name is rich in vowels, I happen to adore them. I see vowels as letters brimming with potential. (That doesn’t stop me from an ongoing practice of making up a name when asked to leave a name for a restaurant reservation.)

Maybe that’s why I also get a kick out of anagrams. They remind me of those long-ago classroom exercises. Do you want to see how many words can be made out of your full name? Maybe read some deeper meaning into them? Try the Internet Anagram Server. And tell us the strangest results in the comments. It’s like yelling strange names on the playground, only this time we’re laughing together.

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Image: CC by 2.0 Alan O’Rourke

Homeschool Worries: Erased With Research & Experience

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I never planned to homeschool. I am the daughter, niece, and granddaughter of excellent public school teachers. I cheerfully volunteered in my children’s classrooms and worked on parent committees. I believed in doing my best to change a flawed system from within.

Yet I kept seeing school wasn’t a good fit for my children. Our four-year-old already knew how to read, but had to practice sight words in preschool anyway. Our sweet but inattentive second-grader was deemed a good candidate for Ritalin by his teacher. Our fifth-grader could do college level work, but due to cuts in the gifted program had to follow grade-level curriculum along with the rest of her class. Our freshman was an honors student but detested school, not only the hours of homework but the trial of dealing with a few teens who were harassing him.

We became homeschoolers overnight when those teens pulled a gun on my oldest in the school hallway, telling him he wouldn’t live to see the end of the day. School officials, who had done nothing to ease the harassment, didn’t even call the police. The next morning every reason I had to avoid homeschooling stared me in the face. So did my kids. They were eager to learn on their own terms.

Here are a few of the misconceptions homeschooling erased for me.

growth mindset, homeschool, children's self-regulation,

1. Education that counts happens in school. My kids were growing up in an enriching home. We read aloud every day and enjoyed wide-ranging conversations. We went to parks, museums, and plays. But I was raised to believe that formal education is something separate and measurable.

Still, I saw that my kids learned most eagerly when filled with the aliveness we call curiosity. That’s true of all of us: learning sticks when we’re interested. When we’re not, much of what we learn tends to become inaccessible after the grade is earned. Hard as it is to believe, studies show that that shallow thinking is actually related to higher test scores. (Maybe we acknowledge this reality when we prepare kids for tests by saying, “Don’t overthink it.”)

When we’re curious we not only retain what we learn, we’re also inspired to pursue the interconnected directions it leads us. I saw this the summer before we began homeschooling. My eight-year-old, the one who barely paid attention in school, was playing with balsa airplanes brought to a picnic by a family friend who piloted his own plane. Other kids gave up after the planes broke, but my son worked to fashion the pieces into newly workable aircraft. This gentleman showed him a few modifications and the unlikely looking planes flew. After that my son was on a quest. He loaded up on books at each library visit, telling us about Bernoulli’s principle, aviation history, and experimental aircraft. He begged for balsa to make models of his own design, each somewhat more sophisticated as he overcame earlier mistakes. The next time we met up with this friend my son was offered a ride on his Cessna. It was the highlight of his summer. His interest in planes eventually waned, but not the knowledge he gained. He’d taught himself history, science, math, and more importantly, shown himself just how capable he was.

His pursuit is what researcher Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, calls a growth mindset. It’s the understanding that achievement comes from purposeful engagement, that talent and smarts are not fixed traits but are developed through persistence. A growth mindset is linked to resilience and accomplishment throughout life. That’s education that counts!

late reading, early reading, homeschooling,

2. Kids have to follow grade-level standards. I once thought homeschoolers had to follow conventional school standards. You know what I mean, if it’s second grade it’s time to learn about ancient Rome, multiplication, and adverbs. For my family, an overly school-ish approach never made sense. I can give dozens of reasons, but here’s one that springs to mind.

Kids develop unevenly. They may be way ahead in reading and struggle in math, able to make up imaginative stories but not coordinated enough to easily to write or type them. If they don’t advance evenly in school, quite a bit of attention is focused on where they’re lacking (extra help, easier and more repetitive work, labels, poor grades). But outside of school it’s easy to emphasize their strengths while other areas are mastered gradually without ever being considered “deficiencies.” This has a basis in current research which shows that children are remarkably good at self-regulating. They’re cued to ignore information that’s too simple or too complex, but instead are drawn to learn from situations that offer the right amount of challenge.

For example, it’s well known in the homeschooling community that many kids aren’t ready to read at five or six. Some aren’t ready until they’re several years older. In school that’s a crisis, because every subject is taught using reading. The child who can’t read not only grows disheartened, he also feels stigmatized. But as a homeschooler he remains immersed in a learning-rich lifestyle whether he reads or not because homeschooling is infinitely adaptable. Stories abound of homeschooled children who move quickly from non-reading to zipping through Harry Potter books once they’re ready. A recent study showed that homeschooled children whose parents don’t push them to learn to read, but instead emphasize the joy of reading, end up with kids who are avid readers no matter if these kids started reading early or late. In our family, we found our kids eagerly accomplished far more in a whole range of subjects over time. “Grade-level” expectations were, to us, limitations.

easy homeschooling,

3. The parent has to be teacher/coach/principal. Being a mother to my children has always been richly rewarding (okay, maybe not in the colicky phase). I didn’t want to take on other roles. Turns out I didn’t have to. We found homeschooling to be an immediate stress reduction. My kids got enough sleep, woke rested, and don’t have to rush through the day. Instead they had ample time for conversation, reading, indulging in art projects and experiments, finding the answers to questions, and going on adventures. Our live were guided by fascination, not bells. Much less control on my part was required.

I found that our cultural emphasis on adult-led activities is somewhat counterproductive. We assume children benefit from the newest educational toys and electronics, coached sports, lots of lessons, and other adult-designed, adult-led endeavors. Well-intentioned parents work hard to provide their children with these advantages although there’s limited evidence that all this effort has value. We do this because we believe that learning stems from instruction. By that logic the more avenues of adult-directed learning, the more children will benefit.

But studies show that a child’s innate drive to creatively solve problems is actually impeded when adults provide direct instruction. This experience is repeated thousands of times a year in a child’s life, teaching her to look to authorities for solutions, and is known to shape more linear, less innovative thinking.

Research also shows that a child’s natural motivation tends to diminish in adult-led activities. Unless they’ve been raised on a steady diet of ready-made entertainment, children are naturally drawn to free play and discovery-based learning. They make up games, daydream, pretend, and launch their own projects–freely seeking out adults for resources and guidance when necessary. They are naturally drawn to achieve mastery. My kids have shown me how motivated self-direction can go into high gear in the teen years. They’ve earned their own money by shoveling stalls, which they spent to buy and restore a vintage car, go on a month-long backpacking trip, and build a bedroom-sized recording studio. And they have stick-to-it-iveness, devoting years to pursuits like a bagpipe band, wildlife rehabilitation, farming, and their own intensive scholarship. Homeschooling has helped us foster a young person’s growing need for independence while providing useful guidance.

hands-on learning, homeschooling,

4. I can’t afford to provide a decent education. Like many new homeschoolers, I thought I’d have to replicate everything from music class to chemistry lab. I knew I’d never have the time, energy, or money. But we quickly discovered we can activate our own knowledge networks and that the community around us is filled with people eager to impart skills and knowledge to the next generation, almost always for free.  They’re found at ethnic centers, museums, libraries, colleges, churches, service organizations, plus clubs like those for rock hounds, ham radio enthusiasts, and astronomy buffs. My children’s lives have been illuminated by spending time with biologists, potters, engineers, geologists, entrepreneurs, archaeologists, organic farmers, model railroaders, meteorologists—the list could take up this page. People seem honored when asked to share a little of what they know. It’s sad that young people are customarily segregated from adults doing fascinating things right in their own communities, especially in the teen years when they so desperately want more role models.

We’ve also gotten together with fellow homeschoolers for countless field trips, enrichment programs, game days, clubs, and learning co-op classes. My kids have re-enacted Shakespearean duels, toured factories, sheared sheep, raced sailboats, learned chemistry from a Ph.D chemist, debated Constitutional challenges, competed in robotics tournaments, built a hovercraft of their own design, learned fencing, calculated the position of the stars, played with world-class musicians, and spent an afternoon with an astronaut after winning a science contest. All free or practically free. When certain subjects got really challenging we easily bartered with an expert or found a community college class to cover it. And we’ve saved thousands by relying on the remarkable resources of our library system.

Sure, I envy those homeschooling families who learn while bike riding in Ecuador or rambling through European castles. But I realize my kids haven’t missed anything despite my penny pinching, especially since surveys indicate two-thirds of school kids say they’re bored in class.   Deep scholarship and hands-on learning are simply another homeschooling perk.

homeschool socialization, peer segregation,

5. Homeschooling will deprive my kids of friends.  I realized the school day isn’t really set up for socializing, although we’d come to rely on school as a source of same-age friendship. Sadly, according to Beyond the Classroom by Laurence Steinberg,
less than five percent of school kids belong to peer groups that value academic achievement, while pressure from prevailing peers steer young people toward underachievement. Even high-achieving students, when asked, say they’d prefer popularity over academic success.  That comes at a price, because members of those lower achievement groups are more likely to demonstrate negative behaviors like conduct problems and drug use. Not the kind of influence parents expect.

And it turns out studies show homeschooled children have better social skills and fewer behavior problems than their demographically matched schooled peers. Homeschooling families also tend to be more active in the community. Initially it took me a while to get used to homeschool gatherings where kids hung out with a wide range of ages and abilities. Sure, they’re kids and not beacons of perfection, but I was pleased to see so much overall good cheer.

As for friends, my kids kept many of their school friends. They also made more as we widened our circle of acquaintances. Many of their new friends were around the same age but some were decades older, bringing perspectives shaped by widely varying experiences. They offered my children a route to maturity they couldn’t have found in school among kids similar to themselves. Their friends include a Scottish gentleman in his 70’s, a group of automotive restoration enthusiasts, a wildlife rehabilitator in her 60’s, fellow backpackers, people with differing physical challenges, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, Wiccans, well, you get the idea. These friendships happened because they had the time to stretch in all sorts of interesting directions.

homeschool success, homeschool misconceptions,

6. Homeschooling is an experiment. Like any other parent, I’m driven to provide my children with the essential ingredients that lead to life-long happiness and success. Late at night, unable to sleep, I’ve entertained my share of doubts. What if homeschooling will limit their chances?  I finally realized I was looking at it from too narrow a perspective. Schooling is the experiment. For 99 percent of all our time on earth, the human race never conceived of this institution. Our species nurtured children close to extended family, within the rich educational milieu of the community, trusting that young people would grow into responsible adulthood. Worked like a charm for eons.

Taking my kids out of school liberated them from the test-heavy approach of today’s schools, one that actually has nothing to do with adult success. Instead of spending over 1,200 hours each year in school, they could devote time to what more directly builds happiness as well as future success. Things like innovation, hands-on learning, and meaningful responsibility. That doesn’t mean I lost all my doubts. Some days, all right, months, I worried. It’s hard to unlearn a mindset

Now all four of my kids are in college or launched into careers. I sat at a recent dinner with my family, appreciating our closeness. My kids take on challenges with grace, react with droll wit even under pressure, and haven’t lost their zest for learning. We laughed as their lively conversation covered Norse mythology, caddisfly pheromones, zeppelin history, and lines from new movies. I’m not sure how much I can credit to homeschooling, but I know it’s given my kids freedom to explore their own possibilities. That’s more than enough.

First published in Lilipoh magazine

Crossposted on Jamie Martin’s wonderful site, Simple Homeschool

Where Fascination Leads

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Born with uniqueness.

“I didn’t say I liked it. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.” Oscar Wilde

My oldest was calm and attentive as a baby, except around vacuum cleaners. The machine’s sound made him scream with the sort of primal terror normally associated with death by predator. He had no previous experiences with loud sounds in his short life, good or bad. Except for surgery, performed when he was five weeks old, he’d had no bad experiences at all.

As a first time parent I turned his reaction into a giant philosophical issue. (Okay, maybe I turn everything into a giant philosophical issue.) Should we only vacuum when one of us took him out of the house until he somehow grew out of it? Or should we hold and reassure him when the vacuum had to be turned on? I was convinced whatever we decided would somehow have lifelong ramifications.

For a few months we relied on the first solution. The only vacuum sounds he heard were through open windows. Even outside, he listened on Baby High Alert status until it was turned off, with wide eyes and a stiff body. Fortunately the vacuum didn’t run long since our house was tiny. Then winter hit. It wasn’t easy to go outdoors simply to turn on the vacuum. Much as I appreciated any excuse to be slothful, I was still in the first child clean house stage (that ended resoundingly long before child number 4). So we tried desensitizing him to the Terror Machine sound. Although he initially screamed when I got it out and named it, he began to calm down as I did this day after day, naming it, then saying OFF and ON while performing those functions quickly. I was relieved when he no longer cried in nervous anticipation. Next I’d hold him as I pushed it around, doing one room before letting him turn it off. His tension dissipated and it became a favorite activity. Have you guessed? Mastery of fear led to fascination.

One of his first words was “vacuum.” He wanted to know all about them. He loved sale fliers with pictures of vacuums. I ended up cutting out all sorts of vacuum pictures to put in a photo album so he could flip through it, pointing and making “vroom” noises. Anything associated with vacuums, like hoses and plugs, also made his fascination list. An early talker, he memorized manufacturer names of vacuums and, like a household appliance geek, would quiz other people about vacuums. I recall one such incident when he was not quite two. We were at the park when my child tried to instigate a conversation with a fellow toddler. It didn’t seem the other little boy was a talker yet. Meanwhile my son, telegraphing his strange upbringing, was asking, “Do you have a Eureka vacuum at home? Do you have a Hoover? A Kirby?” When he saw the respondent didn’t understand, my son tried what he thought was an easier question. “Is your vacuum upright or canister?” Both little boys looked up at me with incredulous expressions, as if asking what was wrong with the other.

He often called his play “work” and was never happier than when he could contribute to real work. For his third birthday my son’s dearest wish was for a hand vac. And to go to Sears so he could hang out in the vacuum section. That’s what we did. Even his best buddy Sara, who had come along for the birthday excursion, patiently indulged him. She understood him well and when they played house she often had him fix pretend things or turn on pretend things, which always made him happy. That year he got a gift wrapped hand vac.

The vacuum obsession wasn’t his only early childhood weirdness. Once he figured out that bones have Latin names (I think a physician friend leaked this info) he insisted on memorizing those names. He liked to rescue bugs from situations he deemed dangerous, telling them “go in peace little brother,” a line he got from one of his favorite books. He preferred actual tools to toys, and before he was four he started building things out of scrap wood and nails, carefully hammering them into shapes almost as incomprehensible as his crayon drawings.

Around that time I read a fascinating book by James Hillman, The Soul’s Code. Hillman is a deep, insightful thinker. It has been a long time since I read the book, but I recall that it described each of us as coming into the world with a uniqueness that asks to be lived out, a sort of individual destiny, which he termed an “acorn.” It’s a remarkable lens to view who we are. A child’s destiny may show itself in all sorts of ways: in behaviors we call disobedience, in obsession with certain topics or activities, in a constant pull toward or away from something. Rather than steering a child to a particular outcome, Hillman asks parents to pay closer attention to who the child is and how the child shows his or her calling.

The examples Hillman gives are memorable. If I recall correctly, Itzhak Perlman, now one of the preeminent violinists of our time, became fascinated when he heard classical music on the radio as a three year old. He wanted to feel the same rich notes coming out of a violin in his hands. His parents lovingly presented him with a toy fiddle when he was four. He drew the bow across the strings and was horrified at the cheap squawk the toy made. Enraged, he threw the instrument across the room, breaking it. His imagination had already taken him to the place in himself where beautiful music was made and he was unable to bear that awful sound. We normally call that behavior a “tantrum.” Another example is award-winning director Martin Scorcese. As a child he suffered from terrible asthma and wasn’t allowed to go out to play on the New York streets. So he watched the world framed by a window. He drew what was going on, making frame after frame of cartoons. He was teaching himself to create scenes and action, essentially tutoring himself in the basics of moviemaking. We’d normally consider his circumstances a form of deprivation. Reading Hillman’s book gave me insight into the acorn of my own fears, longings, and daydreams. It also helped me see my child’s interests with new eyes.

My firstborn is an adult now. He can weld and fabricate, repair tractors and cars, build additions on a home and turn a shell of a room into a working kitchen, drive heavy equipment, do complicated calculations in his head, make do on little, and work until everyone around him has long given up. He’s also witty, intelligent, and endlessly generous. I don’t know if those early vacuum terrors had anything to do with how he’s turned out, but I’m sure the child he was would be amazed at the man he has become.

What was your earliest fear, fascination, and other ways you may have shown the “acorn” of yourself?” What about the children in your life? 

Child 1

This article first appeared in Life Learning Magazine.

Respecting A Child’s Urge To Discover

theory of loose parts, kid innovators, creativity, learning is discovery, self-motivation,


The kids had a bunch of boards, some old nails, a hand saw, and a few hammers. They also had the two most important ingredients, the desire to make something and the freedom to do so.

They spent an afternoon planning their tree fort, enthusiastically arguing over whose plan was best. Their first few attempts failed spectacularly. They were undaunted, even bragged a little bit about the noise the boards made falling down. Several of them asked family members for advice. A few others paged through books and watched YouTube videos as they tried to figure out basic construction techniques. They started again, measuring more carefully as they built a frame. The process took much longer than they’d expected but they stuck with it. When they ran out of materials they scavenged tree lawns on garbage pickup day, dragging back pieces of wood. They got a few cuts and bruises. They were proud of those too. As they worked they talked about how they’d use their clubhouse. It didn’t occur to them how much they were learning.

Conventional thinking tells us that children benefit from the newest educational toys and electronics, lessons, coached sports, and other adult-designed, adult-led endeavors. Well-intentioned parents work hard to provide their children with these advantages. They do this because they believe that learning flows from instruction. By that logic the more avenues of adult-directed learning, the more their children will benefit.

But learning has much more to do with curiosity, exploration, problem solving, and innovation. For example, if baby encounters a toy she’s never seen before, she will investigate to figure out the best way or a number of different ways to use it. That is, unless an adult demonstrates how to use it. Then all those other potential avenues tend to close. Studies show that “helpful” adults providing direct instruction actually impede a child’s innate drive to creatively solve problems. This experience is repeated thousands of times a year in a child’s life, teaching her to look to authorities for solutions, and is known to shape more linear, less creative thinking That’s true of a baby as well as older children and teens.

Young people are also cued to ignore information that is too simple or too complex. Research indicates that people are drawn to learn from situations that are “just right” for them.  They may make plenty of mistakes along the way, just as babies fall when learning to walk, but facing those challenges and making those mistakes are pivotal steps in maturity.

It’s also well-known that a child’s natural motivation tends to diminish in adult-led activities. Unless they’ve been raised on a steady diet of ready-made entertainment, children are naturally drawn to free play. They pretend, make up games, daydream, wonder, and launch their own projects. They are discovering not only the world around them but a rich inner life as well.

Of course adults are vital to young people’s lives. They provide safety, guidance, love, and much more. Kids know they can ask trusted adults for help or advice. They do so more eagerly when they recognize these adults won’t overwhelm them with information, quiz them on what they are learning, or take over. Adult responses simply need to stay in proportion to a young person’s request.

For an example of how powerful the drive to discover can be, let’s take a brief detour to two Ethiopian villages. These places may be rich in intangibles like family and tradition, but they are poor in every other way. The illiteracy rate is practically 100 percent. There aren’t even written words around for children to see: no books, no labels on packaged foods, no street signs. That’s where the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project dropped off 1,000 tablet PCs with solar chargers. They weren’t handed out in a school, but to kids. The devices were pre-loaded with English-language operating systems and software that tracked how the tablets were used. The boxes were taped shut, with no instruction given at all.

In less than five minutes, one child (who’d never seen an on/off switch) powered up a system. The kids collaborated as they learned. Within a few days they were using 47 apps per child, within five months they were taking pictures. That took a while since the kids had to teach themselves to hack Android because the tablet cameras were mistakenly deactivated. The OLPC project is finding, all over the world, that kids are learning to read and speak in multiple languages. They easily search, program, and connect using inexpensive tablets. These kids are also teaching adults in their villages to read and use computers. They’re doing it without adult instruction.

So how did our fort-builders do? They had three sides framed and were working on the fourth when one boy’s father stepped in to help. His help may have been welcomed if they’d asked or if he simply contributed to the team effort, but this very well-meaning man decided the kids weren’t doing a good job. He took over, telling the kids to re-do some of their work and to build the rest of it according to his instructions. They did, but without much gusto. The resulting fort was more sturdily built yet they only used it a few times.

A year or so later they scavenged some boards from it to make a go-cart, and then another go-cart. This time they welcomed the help of another child’s grandfather who worked alongside them, learning together as the project unfolded. Their enthusiasm had returned.