459 comments

My Son is Ready for Early Retirement

Like father, like son?

Like father, like son?

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.

  • Melissa June 6, 2014, 9:15 pm

    My husband and I recently switched our kids from local public schools to a Sudbury school in Austin, TX called Clearview Sudbury School. As mentioned by a couple other people, Sudbury schools allow kids the freedom to pursue their own interests and passions. Yesterday was the last day of the school and my kids said they were sad about school being over. “But you love summer. You get to go swimming every day at camp.” I insisted. “That was before,” they assured me. “Now we just wish school went all year round.” What a difference from prior years. This school is truly is like early retirement for kids. Read Peter Gray’s book “Free to Learn” if you are so inspired. Or check out a condensed version of the main ideas in this article by the same author: http://aeon.co/magazine/being-human/children-today-are-suffering-a-severe-deficit-of-play/.

    Reply
  • Jan June 8, 2014, 3:44 pm

    I see a lot of people have commented on this. I haven’t read all the comments. I would like to suggest you take a look at the Sudbury Method of schooling. It s a democratic run school, the children and facilitators all have the same voting rights. It has no grades, no fixed curriculum and the freedom to learn what is important to you as an individual. My son went to one for a brief year (it closed due to economic issues). He taught himself to read, and it was the happiest year of his life. I am “blessed” with three children who are all different learners who have not thrived at all in the public school environment.

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  • Jeo Oiesen July 19, 2014, 8:43 am

    My only son was similar to your son. He suffered through elementary school, then for middle school we created a micro school here in the mountains for 4-6 kids with a retired teacher and all parents pitching in. He learned enough there to coast thru high school doing nothing until he dropped out. He was in the top 10% of all the students when he eventually took his GED. He bounced around learning to be a prep chef at a country club, lead mechanic at Big O ( where he bought and paid for $20,000 of hand tools). At age 20 he found his calling as a fireman. Eight years later, he is now the Town Inspector and Fire Marshall and at age 40 will retire with a pension, maxed out 401k and a nice investment account. School was poison to him. He is working on an online business degree and just got married. He is trying to teach his new wife the frugal lifestyle, but there is a bit of tension. I am also trying to teach my husband of 11 years the difference between cheap and frugal…

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  • Emma August 12, 2014, 6:10 am

    Was there a follow up to this post? What did you guys decide about school? This is my first year homeschooling (one of my two children, the other is still in public school). Quite honestly, I’m a little shocked you aren’t unschooling!! Seems to fit with your overall life philosophy. That said, as a new homeschooler, it is still scary (and we aren’t unschooling, just homeschooling). I’m hoping to grow more confident and less structured though with time (plus, I way overspent on curriculum when I’m pretty sure I could have done this all for free!!!)

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  • Tracy W. August 16, 2014, 9:35 pm

    Check out Connections Academy. They have a Colorado branch. In Indiana, they are a FREE online fully accredited charter school – the best of both worlds, home schooling with the public school curriculum and organized lesson plans. My daughter enrolled for 10th grade this year.

    Reply
  • Meredith August 18, 2014, 7:03 pm

    First let me say that I have experienced public, home and private schooling for my K-12 education. I enjoyed all three. The ironic thing about “home” schooling is that I spent very little time at home and lots of time traveling, going to museums, and enriching my education with so many experiences that a public school just couldn’t hope to offer. Socialization was far beyond what public school had offered — rather than sitting in my little classroom with a selection of up to 30 or so friends, all the same age and demographic as myself, I was able to explore the world, experience diversity of thought, meet people of different ages and backgrounds, and learn how to go up to a stranger and make a friend. That’s something that public school just can’t offer. People who didn’t understand home schooling would ask about socialization and I just had to laugh at the silly notion that classroom socialization mimics the real world. The real world lies beyond the confines of a classroom. I later went on to attain my PhD, landed my dream job, and am a regular guest speaker at industry conferences and events. Had I stayed in public school, I would have been much less prepared and less able to pursue my dreams.

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  • Starla August 28, 2014, 9:46 pm

    Have you looked into Waldorf? I don’t have personal experience with private Waldorf, but we have 2 boys who go to a Public Waldorf Charter School (in California) and it’s great. Because it’s publicly funded, the school has to follow state rules and such, but overall it sticks to traditional Waldorf methodology with its emphasis on art, music, movement, and LOTS of outside time and really neat field trips. Depending on the grade (and in addition to reading, writing print and cursive, math, history, geology, geography, botany,etc.) they do painting, storytelling, beeswax modelling, drawing, violin, recorder, gardening, plays, movement, Japanese, and Spanish. Great importance is placed on the seasons, quality materials, restricted media use, community, and the whole child (head, heart, and hands). It’s not perfect, but for me, it strikes a nice balance between home school (too much for me to handle) and traditional public school (too narrow in scope). One of the most critical keys to what makes it work for us so far is that Waldorf teachers try to stay with their class 1st through 8th grade. My older son has had the same teacher for 6 years (youngest just going into 1st grade), and it has made all the difference in how he sees school and his place in it. Since it’s their second home, in a way (seeing as how they spend so much time there) it helps if overall they are having a good experience. There are definitely those days where they would rather stay home and pursue their own thing, but overall they look forward to school and see it as a positive thing. Hopefully you’ve figured something great out for your little man already, but just wanted to throw one more idea out there. Take care!
    P.S. What a rockin’ blog! Hats off to both Mr. and Mrs. MMM.
    P.P.S. Your use of ‘bitch’ and swearing in general are, to me, entirely appropriate; thanks for keeping things real (as well as really entertaining).

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  • Jean September 1, 2014, 11:00 pm

    I want to thank you with all my heart for this inspiring and life-changing article!!!

    Reply
  • Berta October 31, 2014, 11:40 am

    Just discovered your blog and it is right up my alley! It’s been very encouraging to me as my husband and I with 2 kids under 5 are getting ready to leave this town (expensive San Diego) and try a new one for all those reasons!!! I am scared to death but loving it at the same time.

    As to this post: Yes to unschooling. I think “socialization” is the least of the worries. That’s what unschooling groups and meetups are for, and with the internet it is so much easier to accomplish an unschooling community than it was in the past. After reading “teach your own” by John Holt I decided unschooling is something I want to have the freedom to choose down the road for our boys. The whole point is that every child is different sot hey can benefit from a blend of resources including the public schools, parents, grandparents, community, local businesses, community colleges.

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  • Terri M November 15, 2014, 9:54 pm

    Wow! Funny that you posted this, because I was forwarded to your site yesterday by a friend, and have gone through the same observation regarding my kids and school. In fact, I’m at a point of trying to decide whether to homeschool or put my eldest into a very expensive private school that I really do believe could meet his needs on all fronts because they really *get it* about what bright kids need (or at least those like my son who enjoys watching to college lectures and listening to planet money far more than elementary school).

    But I’m curious what MMM would do—if you could pay for it, but it would be tight, and you weren’t retired–would you (a) pay some scary large amount to make your kid really truly happy and well-educated, (b) leave him in a boring school setting because you need to work to retire (and buy a house) so boredom saves you money to accomplish this–your needs above his, or (c) homeschool him instead because it’s free except for your time (which does have monetary value)?

    I realize I’ve left out which would get you more money in the end–working while paying for expensive school–or working less at home while homeschooling–since I don’t know how the numbers would work out (long story).

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    • Jules November 16, 2014, 11:53 pm

      Hi Terri. Just my two cents worth … I choose “(a) pay some scary large amount to make your kid really truly happy and well-educated” for all 3 of my kids (it was a huge financial effort but I really believed it was the best thing to do for them). Two of those kids turned out ‘not happy’ and therefore ‘not well-educated”; one was ‘happy’ but though very gifted found socialising much more benefical than academics. What would I do in hindsight – homeschool the two earlier (where they did shine academically & were very happy) but in a co-operative; and leave the one where he was or try him in a co-operative homeschooling environment where he could have been academically stimulated as well as have his social needs met. My advice – go with your intuition and regularly evaluate it by being aware of what really is going on for your child day by day. All the best.

      Reply
      • Terri M November 17, 2014, 12:50 am

        Thank you for your thoughts, Jules.

        I definitely would not do it more than a year if he weren’t excitedly hands-down happy by the end of the year. At that point I’d take him out and homeschool since this is our last resort for school/classroom based learning. What I feel bad about is that I loved school–sure I thought certain classes were seriously boring–but I always remember being excited about the start of school. He’s less and less excited each year.

        I think I’m just scared about sinking the money into an education since it has not paid off for me the way my mother said it would. She was heavily focussed on education and the “no one will hire you without a degree” mantra. She paid for most of mine–private school then Ivy-league school–and now I’m home with the kids. I joke that I’m wiping butts with my degrees. I’m a woman, and most likely my son will not be following my path–he probably won’t be a stay-at-home dad–but I am kind of torn between the idea of having him happily and highly educated vs. making sure that we’re making up for the monetary loss of both my husband and I being in school too long plus me being home with the kids.

        Also, deep down, I want my son to believe that you don’t need to wait to get a degree before you start making money and having a career you love (even 10 year olds can make stuff!). I’m worried that sacrificing for an education, and sending him somewhere that will focus on a high-level one, will send the wrong message. On the other hand, if he’s going to have to spend 7 hours a day doing “Schooling,” I don’t want it to be a waste of his time and emotional energy.

        What I’d really like is for him to try to start a business. :) But I suspect CPS would show up at my door if I had him do that in lieu of school. So if you’re going to spend 7 hours a day cramming knowledge into your noggin’ whether you like it or not (why do we do this to kids again?), shouldn’t it be the best experience it can be?

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        • Trifele November 17, 2014, 4:56 am

          Terri — we are a homeschooling family (new to it) and I wanted to throw my two cents in. You may very well be able to let your son start a business as part of his homeschooling. States vary in how much reporting and detail the parent has to provide, but even in a state that has onerous reporting requirements I think you could dice the project (on paper) into the state’s required rubrics.
          And if you are lucky enough to live in one of the more hands-off states, you are golden. I just read an article a few weeks ago in our local paper about a homeschooling family that opened a business together (a very small restaurant), and the two teenage daughters (14 and 17) are managing it, with parents in the background. Talk about an education!
          If you are thinking about homeschooling I say just go for it! We love it and wish we’d done it sooner.

          Reply
  • sheila November 18, 2014, 1:51 pm

    I got bored reading the trillions of comments slamming public schools, so if this has already been said apologies. As someone who has an engineering degree and a lot of time on his hands why aren’t you volunteering in your son’s school? You could set up an engineering club at lunch or after school to provide some fun math or science projects. I’m sure your son isn’t the only one who would appreciate some non-worksheet learning. Secondly, why not run for school trustee? The American school system is one of the reasons I would have a hard time moving my family to the States. The focus on standardized testing at the loss of time for play, project based learning, and even art and PE is outrageous. You could shake things up. As someone who disparages ‘complainypantsing’ in others, this is a pretty whiny post followed by a bunch of whiny comments. People don’t want to fund public education, but then complain when their experience is less than stellar. Public education is the backbone of democracy, but it needs help! Volunteer in a school, vote for school trustees, become an amazing teacher, tutor for free, homeschool, unschool, public school, Montessori. Do whatever works for you and your family, but please, don’t sit around complaining.

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  • Kim December 5, 2014, 4:31 pm

    I’d recommend you check out the nearest Waldorf school. Yes, it’s expensive, but the education is very different from mainstream schooling in the US. There is a huge emphasis on the arts, handicrafts, and nature. They believe kids develop self-confidence by mastering practical skills (knitting, woodworking) along with academics. And they believe strongly in the importance of downtime, so there are lots of holidays :-)

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  • Robin January 13, 2015, 7:44 pm

    I’m really curious…how did this turn out? This is a year old now…what does your son think of his educational path now? I’m sorry if you’ve already answered this and I just stupidly missed it. :-)

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  • Michael Kilgus February 6, 2015, 7:43 am

    My son has just left this school year for University. The biggest failure (and I knew it early in his life) was to give him up to a that system (public schools in the US). At least four times I offered to pull him out and let him learn at home and he always went back (friends). My biggest failure as a parent, by far.

    Thanks for the blog it’s refreshing,

    Michael

    Reply
  • FrugalM July 6, 2015, 1:08 pm

    Considering what you said in this post, I think you should look into democratic schools, such as those based on the model of Sudbury Valley School. There may even be one near Boulder these days.

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  • Homeschooled September 11, 2015, 12:29 pm

    I want to chime in about the socializing part of my homeschool experience.
    I was homeschooled from 6-12th grade, finished college and am now in grad school. As for socializing, I spent most of my time with my mom and little sister. It was lonely at times. I had a lot of other homeschool kids in the area to hang out with, so most weeks I’d see this group or that group of friends at least two to four times. Most people are surprised I was homeschooled, commenting I’m not the awkward stereotype they imagine.
    The bottom line for how kids turn out socially from homeschooling is the parent’s influence over their personality is strongly amplified. Social parents produce social kids. Awkward parents raise awkward kids, right? Especially if homeschooled. Incredibly so. Want your kids to act like you? Homeschool them.

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  • Theresa November 26, 2015, 3:59 am

    I’m not sure whether this was already mentioned, but have you heard of André Stern? He is quite an impressive and intelligent young man and father. I read his book (“… and I never went to school”; only available in German) and I’m quite fond of the idea of unschooling my child. Unfortunately, this is illegal in Germany and we’d have to move to another country.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MdJQ5wD1jCM
    http://andrestern.com/en/andre-stern/biography.html

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  • Novice Spartachian February 10, 2016, 3:42 pm

    There’s a really impressive charter school in Arizona called BASIS. I was wondering what your opinion would be on this type of education.

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  • Lisa February 25, 2017, 5:16 am

    Not being able to read everyone’s comments, your post reminded me of why my husband and I chose to take our kids out of a public school setting and switch to a Montessori education. It truly has allowed my kids to work at their own unique pace and allows them to excel in areas that were previously stifled. Meanwhile they still have social interactions they may miss out on if we had the option to homeschool.

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  • Tom T March 13, 2017, 11:01 am

    Have you checked out (our mutually favorite person in the world) Elon Musk’s school he built for his children? I expect he’s come up with some ideas you’d like quite a bit. Ad Astra it’s called: Have to imagine those kids are taught to be creative!

    Reply
  • Steve Kernohan September 20, 2017, 9:35 pm

    14 years ago, when my sons were aged 8 & 5, I took my “First Retirement” (at age 39). We pulled them out of school (Actually the younger one hadn’t even started!) and set off around Australia for 9 months in an old 4WD & Caravan. We “home schooled” them to some extent with some lesson ideas from their very supportive teachers, & general learning from our travels, including making them calculate every cent we spent each week to make sure we were on budget. When we reluctantly returned, mainly because we were worried about liking being nomads too much, we discovered that they were waaaay ahead of all the other kids! Our younger son’s teacher specifically asked us NOT to tell any other parents what we’d done, as it would make the school look bad! On the road they learn’t about Australia, life without TV, how to interact with people of all ages, life in general, plus the lessons that we had them do daily. We found that 1 hour a day on average kept them up to date with class & all the other learning was a massive bonus. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED TO ANYONE WHO CAN DO IT!! As an extra bonus, we lent our house to a lovely young couple so they could save for a deposit on a home, & a couple of Real Estate Investments meant we came home wealthier than when we’d left! One of my favourite “hobbies” was confusing older travellers by telling them I was on my first retirement & watching their faces as they went “How the F$@#&! – Win, Win, Win!

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  • Marius Le Prince, André August 1, 2019, 11:38 pm

    Dear MM,

    Thanks for your blog and insights. It helped us a lot. More of that below.

    To your Question:

    I have a client which creates and runs kindergartens and schools where the kids love to go to their kindergardens and schools. Just a figure to illustrate the success of my clients schooling system: 13 % of their pupils consists of school dropouts from the public school system because of boredom or worse. These pupils are within weeks enthusiastic school attendees and best performing pupils.

    In other words their pupils love kindergarten and school. How do they do this: kids love to learn (if you do it right), have a healthy curiosity (like a scientist or inventor) and love to support others and/or teamwork as well as individuality. So, with the right educational system you can bring the best out of every kid and they love school.

    For more information as well as a link etc., please drop me an email.

    To our thanks:

    Although we are no Mustachians badasses (my wife and me): our living expenses are outrageous, we discovered to your blog that we are already financially independent! However even with this knowledge we changed nothing in particular in our lifes. We still work because it is our calling. I switched to ride an ebike and sold my car which enhanced my happiness and we did some other minor changes. But that was about it.

    However we love our jobs / callings even more because we know we do not have to work! Which brings us more happiness! Therefore we are grateful!

    Best

    André

    Reply

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