My Son is Ready for Early Retirement
I suppose I can’t blame him, because this IS pretty nice. It’s Monday morning, and I just dropped him off at school, rode the mountain bike and trailer back home through the deep and fluffy remnants of the latest snowstorm, and settled in with this laptop and my sunny, empty house to compose my thoughts for you. Greg Reitan is playing some wicked Jazz piano in the background via Pandora, and my belly is nicely satisfied with fine coffee and a bowl of almonds. The rest of the world is out commuting on an icy highway or dialing into the conference call while seated in the cubicle. This is the life for me.
But is it the life for an eight-year-old?
Although he has made it to the second half of second grade with great success, my boy has softly been singing an underlying chorus of “I don’t want to go to schooool!” since long before Kindergarten. The song fades away on the good days, because there are occasional bits of learning and he has several great friends among his classmates. But then he gets a taste of freedom again, like the two-week Christmas holiday that just ended an hour ago, and it reminds him of how much more he enjoys not being in school. Our holiday together was a beautiful blur of late nights, family board games, friends, movie nights, adventures at the creek, sunshine, drawing pictures, and making songs with Ableton Live and elaborate automated buildings in Minecraft. When he realized it was truly over last night, he cried so much that he had trouble getting to sleep.
I can’t blame him, because this feeling about school and organized activites in general tends to run in my side of the family. I remember finishing the nine-year sentence in my own small town K-8 elementary school wondering if I had learned anything during the entire session. High school became more interesting because of some inspiring teachers in Science, Math, and English (and because of the girls). And Engineering school, while painful, was motivating because I knew there was freedom and an excellent paycheck waiting right at the end of the tunnel. But since finishing that whole affair, I have never looked back other than to marvel at how different than me the folks who pursue graduate degrees and PhDs must be. A brilliant nephew of mine finds himself in a similar boat: my sister described his school years as “A quiet rebellion of boredom”, although he has awakened now that he is among other whiz kids in the Computer Science program of his country’s top university.
Some of us just really enjoy our freedom, and we use that freedom for constant learning of the things we really want to learn, and creating the things we really want to create. This is surely why I quit even the relatively free environment of the corporate office: to get all my time back for truly self-guided pursuits. And I suspect this personality type is common among the Mustachians as well: you don’t have any trouble keeping yourself busy, the only issue is freeing yourself from the busywork that others keep assigning to you.
But how do we handle it when a kid discovers this obvious source of joy less than 3000 days into his life? Under the current regime, the poor lad is scheduled for about fourteen additional years of school, at which point he’ll to need work and save for another decade to earn his financial independence. I could allow him to cheat the system by setting aside a trust fund that made work (and school) optional at any point, but I do not want to deny him the soul-building satisfaction of good old-fashioned hard work, and the incomparable advantage of having to work for what you get.
But at the same time, there is surely some benefit I can pass on from this clearly advantaged position. Compared to my own parents at a similar stage in 1982, Mrs. MM and I have much more secure finances, one child instead of four, unlimited free time to spend with him, and the resources of the Internet from which to pull knowledge. There are thousands of other parents of bright but slightly bored kids reading this who might have some ideas. With so many advantages, it would be a cop-out for me to just leave my son to follow exactly the same path I walked 32 years before him, without at least questioning The Rules.
We would not be the first people to do so. I was recently inspired by this TED talk by Ken Robinson, which eloquently explains that despite its best efforts, the school system does tend to crush creativity. Adding to that idea, there’s this ambitious 13-year-old lad that did his own TEDx Talk about a self-guided “Unschooling” or “Hackschooling” education.
By now you’ve probably learned that a formal university education is only one of many paths to a good life. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were dropouts. Free and inexpensive learning spots like the Khan Academy and Treehouse abound. My own posts on jobs without a degree are some of the most widely read on this site. Heck, there is a 23-year-old college dropout staying in my guest suite right now, who founded his own successful company several years ago which now allows him to lead a life with greater freedom than I had at that age. He’s here to have an adventure and to learn new skills, in a completely non-academic environment. But all this still leaves the question of how to motivate your very young kid without denying him the benefits of school.
So we don’t have the answers yet. My boy is excited that he has gained admission to a special program within the school that allows kids in this situation to leave class twice per week and gather with a special teacher to cover more interesting material. We could try an Unschooling experiment next year, spending a portion of it living in another country (I’m partial to New Zealand myself, and then perhaps Ecuador the next year). The regular school is well-run and has the best intentions, but learning formalized material in a big group is very slow and is bound to leave a certain portion of the kids spending 90% of each day waiting for what is next. Or missing recess because some other kids were talking when the teacher had declared that talking was not allowed. And the charter and private schools I’ve encountered around here all seem to emphasize even more academic rigor and discipline, rather than more freedom to roam and learn.
Unfortunately, I think that purely hanging around at home would be unsuccessful. We could learn much more quickly, but there are only three of us here – not enough people to provide a truly rounded social education. Plus there is the selfish issue: both my wife and I benefit greatly from having a few hours on weekdays to do our own things. After all, this blog is not going to write itself.
What do you think? Have you encountered this problem with your own children?
Ideally, we could gather and form communal unschooling environments with five or six cool kids, and the problem would be solved. I could teach them writing and carpentry, you could teach them filmmaking and math, and some of our other friends would handle the sports, physics, chemistry, and whatever else they want to learn. We’d take plenty of field trips as well.
The more conservative standardized-test-loving government officials and administrators of the world might frown upon us, but we’d probably end up with a batch of very creative, happy, and motivated young adults, which is really the primary job that we sign up for when we produce these fine little creatures.
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