Education, flourishing, and why parents (and schools) fail their children

We were invited to a birthday party this weekend, which meant that I spent three hours watching young children play in a country club pool. I was surprised to see some children as young as seven or eight immediately split off into cliques. These pint-sized Kardashians resisted interacting with each other with ample servings of drama.

But more surprising was watching girls in one of the cliques playing house. The “mother” in the group pretended to wake her daughters up in the morning. She rushed into their imaginary room and shouted, “Get out of bed! You need to get ready for school so you can find a rich boyfriend!” I was aghast. I would not have believed she actually uttered those words, except she proceeded to repeat them several times. I looked over at their real mothers, who seemed unfazed. This was their normal.

After her imaginary daughters were dressed, the girl pretended to inspect their outfits like a general in the military. “Go back to your room and change! A rich man would never be interested in someone who looks like you!” The girls then dreamily discussed what their ideal mates would possess – a house made of gold, with “a pool even larger than this one.”

It was like listening to the comically tedious mother from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. “Girls, girls, I heard Darcy has ten thousand a year!” But it was presented without Austen’s biting sarcasm.

I say all the time that childhood is about developing an aesthetic. To persuade your child that they do not want to spend their one precious life engaging in activities that are beneath them. To model for them a sense of what a life well-lived would be like. This is the difference between having a child that spends their evenings on social media and the child that combs the Internet looking for a marine biology camp. Between the kid that is “addicted” to first-person shooter video games and the kid that wants to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and that’s true for parenthood too. If you don’t sell your child on an idea of happiness, society will supply that content for them. All bad behavior is a form of communication about what people need but are not getting. You don’t want your child developing a sense of purpose from the nihilists on CNN or Facebook. They will teach your children to rage and rot their minds.

Conversely, I’ve also met a lot of women (in particular) who think they are going to micromanage their children into having a good character. “You get only two hours of screen time a day!” Character is not built on the elimination of free will. The key is to raise a kid that genuinely wants to participate in better things. They aren’t spending their days hammering away on their smartphones because they are genuinely curious about something more important. Your rules aren’t going to change that.


I offer this story because I have been reading Ronald F. Ferguson and Tatsha Robertson’s book The Formula: Unlocking the Secrets to Highly Successful Children. This is an excellent book on parenthood and a persuasive appeal to an Aristotelian worldview in general (which I very much subscribe to).

The book is the outcome of the How I Was Parented Project at Harvard, which examined the biographical details and parenting experiences of hundreds of diverse but highly successful individuals. The goal of the study was to identify what these individuals had in common, to see if there was a “formula” for success.

The authors conclude that there is, in fact, a formula for raising successful children, and that formula transcends socioeconomic backgrounds. Affluent people can raise kids to be successful or sabotage their ability to flourish in the world (much like the children I observed at the party). Disadvantaged parents can raise kids to be successful or sabotage them. There are common paths to social mobility. There are common paths to failure. It is terrible to spoil children. It is also terrible to train children to fetishize their own perceived suffering or lack of opportunities.

One of the best chapters in the book is the life story of a homeless mother who raised her son up so he was eventually accepted into Harvard. She was determined for him to escape poverty, and she invested all her time into teaching him. She was creative in how she found access to resources for him. In one case, she was transferred to another shelter so he could attend a higher quality school in the suburbs.

Success versus sabotage

.The authors define success in Aristotelian terms – Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, which is often translated from the Greek as “flourishing.” Flourishing is a grand combination of being happy in disposition, being materially secure, being a good citizen, having a household and friendships that contribute to spiritual well-being, progressing toward wisdom (which then carries on the project of helping future generations achieve the same).

The thesis of the book, of course, is that there is a formula for raising highly successful kids. That formula is expressed as:

Purpose + Agency + Smarts = A Fully Realized Individual

For the authors, a successful person is not motivated exclusively by material wealth or an unqualified desire to please authority figures. They develop a lofty goal or objective that will animate and bring continuity to their life decisions. (I would describe this as developing a sense of honor.) They possess agency, or a “let’s do this” attitude in life. (That is to say, they are not raised as cynics. They aren’t blind idealists, either, but they do actively search for ways to fulfill their purpose instead of shrugging their ambitions off in the face of challenges.) They are conventionally intelligent, not just because they possess innate gifts, but because they were raised to be curious and genuinely love learning new things.

High achievers versus prodigies

The book involves an interesting digression on the difference between what the authors label as “high achievers” versus prodigies. I’ve always been somewhat amused by our culture’s obsession with prodigies and their inevitable meltdowns as they transition from gifted children into adults that cannot function in the world. Amadeus. Good Will Hunting. A Beautiful Mind. Etc. etc. These movies, for example, get made primarily because Hollywood fetishizes suffering, not because they admire the people behind the stories. (Heck, Amadeus isn’t even marginally a factually accurate representation of Mozart’s life. I mean, they got his name right, and that’s about it.)

The authors suggest that these burnouts among prodigies are not an accident. High achievers are purposeful in choosing new projects; prodigies live lives in response to what other people – some with good intentions, some without – think about their talents and what can be gained from them. High achievers can learn to collaborate with other people; prodigies tend to perform for other people. High achievers can become polymaths and Renaissance women and men; prodigies are slaves to a specific talent, whether they enjoy it or not.

The main difference between prodigies and high achievers is that high achievers can be nurtured. Prodigies start their lives expecting success and notoriety to come without effort, and that dooms their future. Adults are their fans due to the novelty of a child functioning on an adult level. Then the prodigies grow up and their talents are no longer quaint or impressive. Adults cease to be promoters and now view them as competitors. That’s when the prodigy melts down instead of flourishes.

The eight roles of the master parent

The brilliance of this book is that it is less about what a successful child looks like, however, and more about what master parents look like.

They describe eight roles that master parents will fill in their child’s life:

(1) The early learning partner: The first role a master parent must fill starts before the child is even born. They amass materials and strategies to engage their children in brain-building literacy (and I’d add numeracy and logic) games. By the time their children are school age, the kids are at ease around language and numbers. This is not a force that is brought into their lives by people external to their household.

(2) The flight engineer: The master parent will intervene in their child’s behavior to keep them on course. They take disciplinary issues seriously. They track their child’s work and seek feedback.

I was interested in the discussion on the “flight engineer” role, because it predictably ended up covering some rants I have made here and elsewhere a lot. The authors don’t use the word “unschooling,” but they describe a similar philosophy of natural development. Intriguingly, the authors associate the education philosophy of “just let your child do what they are pulled to do” with lower income households. I would love to introduce them to some relatively affluent granola homeschoolers / private schools who nurse the exact same convictions as parents who feel economically defeated in providing their children with a serious education. The latter think their children will magically discover passions and talents if left alone, and that making them suffer through such atrocities as schedules or textbooks would annihilate their curiosity forever. Both are a rejection of fundamental responsibilities.

(3) The fixer: The fixer teaches their children practical skills to survive in a sometimes hostile environment. To locate mentors who will represent their interests to their own peers. To find allies who can teach them what is necessary, for example, to get into a tough school.

(4) The revealer: The revealer introduces their child to new ideas, places, and interesting people. They take their kid to symphonies. They travel. They learn about Korean food. They let them tag along at work or attend professional meetings. Master parents will help their child develop the signposts of culture that are necessary to win over other people. They help them communicate about their goals in a real way. If your child wants to be a stockbroker, you will have them hang around stockbrokers to acquire the language of a stockbroker, to know what the job actually entails.

(5) The philosopher: This comes back to the idea of having a purpose. The master parent will talk to their kids about what a life well-lived would involve. What they value and why.

(6) The model: The master parent behaves the way they want their children to behave one day.

(7) The negotiator: The master parent has to prepare their children to be effective advocates for what they want in the world. This means allowing children to have a role in determining how their household operates. It does not mean allowing children to do whatever they want, failing to discipline poor behavior, or rejecting objectively bad life decisions. Children need to have space to test their skills in argumentation and persuasion, and the best way to do that is to have real things at stake in succeeding or failing.

(8) The GPS: The master parent has to help their child build a sense of direction that is consistent with their sense of purpose. There’s no advantage in having a sense of agency if the child cannot see where they can manipulate their own circumstances to advance their own philosophy of what living a good life involves.

I have very much enjoyed reading this book and would highly recommend it to new parents.

Confess your unpopular opinion: “Unschooling” is a terrible fad

“Unschooling” or “self-directed learning” is all the rage on homeschooling forums. It’s a loathsome trend that (as a homeschooler) I wish would go away already.

One of my single greatest fears about homeschooling now is being lumped in with unschoolers from a regulatory standpoint and losing the flexibility in educating our child that we currently enjoy. Becoming collateral damage, if you will. I fear the day that government officials catch up to the conversations on Facebook and Twitter.

I think this fad is actually more dangerous to homeschooling than being associated with the occasional story of a child abuser using homeschooling laws to evade detection by authorities that might otherwise intervene on their child’s behalf. Most people are smart enough to understand that there’s a difference between child abuse and homeschooling. But the unschooling fad creates a problematic grey area that is a lot harder to shake.

What is unschooling?

There seems to be some confusion online among folks who label themselves as unschoolers, which strikes me as purely generational. The term unschooling was used by people who were originally drawn into homeschooling by educators like John Taylor Gatto. These personalities were sort of libertarian in disposition and spoke of themselves as “unschoolers” merely to differentiate homeschooling from traditional government-operated schools. That is to say, unschooling and homeschooling were essentially synonymous from the 1970s until very recently.

The first generation of unschoolers wanted to emphasize the fact that they could cover topics that traditional schools could not (either because they were restricted by law or by the practical limits of ushering 40 kids in a classroom through complex subject matters). That they included rich experiences like travel or apprenticeships into their idea of education.

Now the term unschooling has been co-opted by a new generation of homeschoolers to refer to a home education philosophy that eschews all trappings of a formal education and strives to avoid putting children through any form of emotional stress whatsoever. In fact, avoiding perceived sources of stress is the most important issue for them.

Working from a set curriculum might scar your child for life. If you force a textbook on your child, they will hate education forever.

You don’t need to decide what your child will study. He or she will reveal their interests to you. You aren’t a teacher. You are a guide, learning coach, whatever. Even the word “teacher” is triggering and suggests oppression.

Schedules and routines are evil. Each day should be about finding opportunities for unstructured play.

What happened?

Sure, play is important. Kids absolutely should be outside playing more than they are now. I’ve made these statements many times in the past. But is it more important than being literate and numerate? There are bad reasons for homeschooling. It’s okay to say that.

When did the stereotypical homeschooler stop being the Christian tiger mom that preached about academic excellence and a work ethic? When did she become the mother who describes home education as relaxed days spent swilling lattes and posting carefully staged pictures of her children doing wholesome things on Instagram? When did we end up with homeschooling trolls on social media shaming and bullying other parents about how they are “pushing their kids too hard” and “depriving them of a childhood” because they are teaching their kids Latin or drilling them on math problems? When did some homeschooling forums become just as infantilizing and unserious as Common Core? The opportunity to give your child a rigorous education was always one of the top reasons to homeschool. Rigor is something to defend, not scorn!

Everyone is an expert

Honestly, I think the answer is that homeschooling has been undermined by its own popularity.

There are currently several million families in the United States that choose to homeschool their children. I suspect the real number is actually higher than “official” estimates, as there are a litany of states that no longer collect any data on homeschoolers. (Publishing data on the number of parents that have elected to pull their kids from public schools does not exactly make a state government look good.)

Homeschooling has now transitioned from a perceived counterculture to a target market economically. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of websites, publishers, and self-publishers trying to hawk materials and advice to homeschoolers. On Amazon, you can now find probably 200 self-help books about homeschooling that all pretend that anyone from any background with any motive can homeschool well. “You don’t need to stress about what math curriculum your child needs! Just let them play all day! Your child will tell you what they need! Homeschooling is easy!”

That is pretty much bullshit. Even if you run the most hippie homeschool in the world, with no emotional stress and no tests and no prescribed content, in all likelihood your child will eventually need to be able to demonstrate that they can take a test or write an essay. Like, you know, when they apply for college.

In fact, this is one of the greatest lies the unschooling fad pushes, which is that there are unschoolers that have gone on to colleges, even elite colleges, and thus this approach to education is not a real problem. They aren’t talking about the anti-vaxxer homesteader whose kids’ lives were one giant playdate and learned everything they need to know about biology by growing squash in their backyard. They are talking about the first generation, for whom unschooling had a different meaning entirely. The former are not going to be able to produce a legitimate transcript for college that shows their child did anything akin to AP chemistry.

In all likelihood, your child will end up with a job that involves answering to management, and management will expect them to have a healthy sense of authority.

Heck, even after I finished graduate school I had to take four standardized tests on securities and commodities trading before I could get my first job, which was working at an investment bank. And finance is not unique in this respect. Medicine, law, and many other professions expect you not to be an emotional or academic wimp.

Pretending that your kid can go through their entire life without interacting with the standards imposed by society or ever being pushed out of their comfort zone is beyond delusional. And I think the people selling unschooling fully understand this point. But telling people that homeschooling is an easy, relaxed lifestyle means you can sell more fluffy lifestyle books and get more followers for your fluffy homeschooling lifestyle blog that you can also monetize.

There are endless blogs now selling materials for your relaxed homeschool, most of which are just random people on the Interwebs making PDF worksheets (sorry, they call them “printables” now because “worksheet” sounds like “work” and work’s not granola) with clip art. “I’m a homeschool mom too and here’s the unit I made about caterpillars! Only 99 cents! So wholesome!” Most of these sites are targeting people who are new to homeschooling, because pretending to create resources is easy for elementary-aged children, but nearly impossible for teenagers. I’ve gotten to where I feel like this is extremely predatory, unethical behavior.

If you don’t want to invest the hard work that goes with producing a literate, numerate, cultured human being, then your kids are likely better off in a public school. If you don’t want to make a real investment in academic materials to educate your child, your kids are likely better off in a public school. If you don’t want to add professional educator to the caps you wear, then this gig is not for you.

If you are new to homeschooling, be careful who you let influence your life decisions. Homeschooling forums are now loaded with Oprahs and Gwyneths selling their snake oil to the mommy blog crowd. You don’t get a mulligan on your child’s education. The education you provide them will help define the opportunities they have. Their education is their fate. This is serious stuff.

What Should Education Do For a Child?

What does a kid learn from playing?
E playing with a lizard on a nature walk.
We consider hiking part of our school day.

It seems like every day there is an article in some newspaper about how homeschooling is skyrocketing in the United States. The article starts off by quoting (bad) government statistics that dramatically understate the number of homeschoolers. Many people think public education is managed by the federal government, which is not true. Education is almost entirely managed at the state level. There are many states that now do little to track homeschooling families and collect little to no data about them. This means national statistics about homeschooling are likely missing millions of homeschooled children. I have always imagined this is deliberate political subterfuge, since the states with the most hands-off views on data tend to be blue states. The last thing teachers union representatives want is big, bold data being published about how many millions of families have pulled their kids out of the public school system. (This is just how influence on government policy works. There are, as a matter of fact, many politically progressive homeschoolers.)

Then these articles go on to talk about homeschoolers as some sort of counterculture and monolithic group in terms of practices and beliefs. I would say that homeschooling certainly was a subculture with nearly monolithic beliefs before the Internet age. Now more people with more diverse values and attitudes toward education are homeschooling, and the fact that folks can find niches they can relate to online is likely a driving cause of the growth in homeschooling. Social media has also allowed these groups to Balkanize the homeschooling movement. “Oh, you are a homeschooler? We are too!” has been replaced with “What kind of homeschooler are you?”

You have generalist Christian homeschoolers (usually evangelicals). You have classical Christian homeschoolers (usually Catholics and high-church Protestants) who believe in recreating the education system of ancient Greece and Rome. You have Charlotte Mason homeschoolers, who take a literary approach to homeschooling but are still largely religious. You have secular homeschoolers, who range from folks that simply want access to curricula that do not reference God or religion but are academically superior to Common Core to the atheist trolls of homeschooling forums. And then you have unschoolers.

Among these groups, “unschoolers” are the ones who are getting the most media attention during this highly political moment in American society. Unschooling is a term that (in my opinion) has been largely corrupted and co-opted. It started off as a term used to describe homeschooling in general – you were “unschooling” if you did not want to put your kid in public schools for academic or cultural reasons.

Now unschooling refers to people who take a child-directed approach to education. They think the concept of a teacher is much of the problem with education (not to mention an unnecessary source of anxiety and depression in children). They see what children get taught as being a largely arbitrary matter and think a child’s personality should dictate what a child studies (as opposed to having “core” or mandatory subjects). These are the people who question why a kid who loves computers should study Shakespeare or why a kid who loves Shakespeare should be forced to learn algebra. There are a lot of people who allow their kids to do more of the things they love than a traditional school might, and they also tend to call themselves unschoolers (albeit a less radical form). One thing they all have in common is the cri de coeur that “play is the work of childhood” – meaning that young children should not be doing traditional school activities at all, but have mostly unrestricted, free time. Park day, all day? That’s unschooling now.

None of these groups gets along particularly well with any of the others, for obvious reasons. The Charlotte Mason folks who teach their kids a new hymn every week don’t want to listen to the secular homeschoolers rant about people with imaginary friends. The classical education folks who have been teaching their kids Latin since they were seven years old don’t like the unschoolers who think a seven-year-old child should be spending nine hours a day making mud pies.

I used to launch into this explanation of the varieties of homeschooling whenever someone told me they were thinking about homeschooling their child and asked for advice on procuring a curriculum. Now I just ask them “what is it that you think an education should do for a child?” This seems like an important existential question that is rarely, if ever, asked in education policy discussions. And while there is a lot of in-fighting and debate over this topic, I am not sure anyone should be allowed to answer it for anyone else.

To that end, Memoria Press – a company that provides curriculum and top-notch cottage schools for classical homeschoolers – published a very thought-provoking piece, Gravitas: The Lost Art of Taking School Seriously, on this very question and the trendy notion that education should be replaced with “play.”

I interpret the author’s thesis to be this: What the “play is the work of childhood” crowd gets wrong is intellectual development, and we have thousands of years of evidence to support this. Play is how we teach pre-Kindergarten children because they are pre-rational. They have to observe and explore how things in their environment relate to each other before they can communicate about it, which is an activity that requires the ability to understand concepts in abstraction. After that, kids need legitimate instruction to master concepts. From there, kids should get an education in the liberal arts, not in whatever they want at the time, as this is what makes us human in a fundamental sense.

The author sees the “play all day” attitude as problematic because it is training kids not to take institutions seriously (and perhaps to think the world revolves around their immediate wants and desires):

The first question that faces us in the primary school is what to do about kindergarten, a transitional stage between preschool and real school. The five-year-old is not quite mature enough to sit still and focus at the level needed for real school. The solution for most schools has been to intersperse academics with lots of play and preschool activities to fill out the day.

But a comment I overheard many years ago has always made this option unacceptable to me. I guess my ears have always been attuned to education, for I cannot account for why I should have noted, nor long remembered, a comment I overheard as a young child. A teacher, who had taught first grade for many years, complained to my mother that the introduction of kindergarten in her school was having a negative effect on her first grade class. The ears of this future teacher perked up.

The teacher went on to give the reason: The children who had spent a year in kindergarten enter first grade thinking that school is play. As a result, teachers had to expend much time and energy in teaching children that school is not play, but serious work. She went on to explain that children used to come to first grade in awe of school. Now they come, she said, with unrealistic expectations that school should be fun, and that first grade is not a big step in growing up but just another year of school which happily involves lots of things, only some of which are school work.

The author then goes on to attack unschoolers directly and the influence they are having on dumbing-down education for all groups:

The essence of the preschool learning model is the preschool explorer. The preschool child learns by play and random, non-systematic exploration of his surroundings. The essence of formal education, however, is just the opposite. Once the child is old enough to learn through reason, he is able to acquire the artificial, abstract tools of human learning: letters and numbers. The methods proper to formal education are not play, discovery, and exploration, but rather systematic instruction.

This model of the happy preschool explorer eagerly investigating his surroundings and making discoveries through his own untrammeled curiosity is the rationale for the progressive discovery method of learning. The progressive educator tries to convince the unsuspecting parent that only through continuing with these methods can the joy of learning be maintained permanently in the education process.

This is the essence of progressive education and is the single most destructive influence in education today. It has infected the very air we breathe, and there are few, even among classical educators, who are immune to it. The romantic notion that the joy of learning that is characteristic of the preschool child is the model of learning for the formal education of the classroom is the siren song of progressive education. It is sheer nonsense. Until educators and parents realize this, we will never achieve excellence in education.

Instead of the mistaken notion of learning as fun and exploration, we must return gravitas to the classroom. Gravitas is the element most lacking in the K-12 classroom today. American culture today is so shallow and pleasure-sodden that we don’t really know what gravitas is anymore. It is not a word heard often. Gravitas is a sense of seriousness about what we are doing. Our work, in Christian terms, is a high calling from God. The Romans had gravitas. As Christians we should have it too, but with the added element of joy.

Until I read this piece, it had not occurred to me that unschoolers have a very similar understanding of education as the folks who developed Common Core. They carry the academic problems of the political moment with them.

I feel like both groups of educators rely on caricatures to push them to ever more extreme views on education. The unschoolers portray traditional schools as the death of a lifetime love of learning – and surely some bad schools are, but hardly all. I went to public school and had several teachers who made me fall in love with subjects I would have otherwise not been all that thrilled about. They say this enough times, however, that they actually come to believe they should toss out any activity that even remotely resembles a day at a traditional school. Throw out schedules, discipline, having goals for what your kid should know by the end of the year. Some even think that families should go for months on end doing nothing even remotely structured after pulling a child out of a traditional school. (They call this de-schooling.) The classical education folks spend an incredible amount of time trying to convince people that rote learning is optimal for children, and a nostalgic appeal to how they think one-room schoolhouses operated is the sum total of their arguments. I can tell you as someone with a gifted child that bright young things often resist learning this way and project-based education offers a lot of advantages if you do not want to morph into an unkind, authoritarian household. Project-based schooling is not an unserious endeavor.

The only way to escape these arguments is to go back to basics: What is it that you want an education to do for your child? This question should preface any discussion of what your day should look like. I think all of these folks would arrive at different opinions if they were intellectually honest with themselves.