Should You Home Ed Your Kids?
Me and my partner watch a documentary series called Child Genius that follows a yearly competition to find the UK's smartest under 10 year old.
The fascination with smart kids — how smart they are, what learning styles they use, how they behave, what their parents are like — as a parent who’s also a programmer is obvious, but there’s also a fundamental question I wonder about:
Can you make your child smarter?
The show gives you a window into different ways other parents tutor their children and how successful those methods are. The competition is literally putting the kids in rank order, but it’s not just a test of intelligence, it’s often a test of resilience as well.
How comfortable would you be answering questions, even on your own favourite subjects, on TV and in front of an audience…when you’re ten…against about fifteen other super-smart ten-year-olds?
The kids come from all sorts of different backgrounds, girls and boys, rich and poor but you tend to find they roughly fall into a handful of “types”.
- The parents that are bemused at how smart their child is, they don’t have any particular academic background and suddenly their child is coming out with all sorts of facts and figures they never taught them.
- The parents who are already super-smart, the dad might be an engineer and mother a brain surgeon.
- The parents who are convinced their child is destined to be the next Einstein and will stop at nothing to win.
- The parents who deeply admire their child to the point where they’re convinced they can achieve absolutely anything.
Is it what we do or is it who we are?
You remember there was a game on the Nintendo DS called Brain Training? People used to say, the brain is a muscle. Well it’s kind of a fallacy, you can improve your memory and gain knowledge but you can’t make yourself much smarter than you already are.
The kids with super-smart parents almost always win Child Genius, they’re just born smart. Once they’re smart, then you can talk about motivation and strategy, but if they’re not super-smart already, they’re not gonna win.
The strategy part is also really interesting though. It seems to be the kids who rank highest are the self-motivated ones. They have parents who encourage them, but not too much to the point where they inflate the child’s ego, and they don’t pressure them to the point where the child thinks it matters too much.
The children that do best follow their own interests, the competition just happens to suit them so they do well.
Does schooling matter?
Me and my partner have a five year old boy called Yuri, he’s smart — we’re both above average — and I could see him picking up programming pretty easily. He’d have a huge advantage seeing as his dad’s a programmer and he’s already interested in computers, patterns, puzzles and building things.
His mum started teaching him to read before he could talk and he could already write her name by the age of three and a half. His bedroom has a bookshelf stuffed full of books and by four he was starting to pick up the baby level books we used to read to him and give them a go on his own.
I never worried about his intelligence until he started school.
After the first year (reception year, before year one), his drawing and writing had both gotten worse, so had his attention span and patience. We found out he hadn’t used his PE shoes because they hadn’t bothered doing PE for most of the year, they watch youtube two to three times a day, he comes home with cakes and sweets at least three times in the month and they’re being taught a type of easy-level sign language meant for children with learning disabilities.
Neither me or my partner Ella are conventional thinkers when it comes to education. I was home schooled from 7 through to 11 and Ella’s mum was head mistress to a very successful primary school.
From my perspective I can see the utility in going to school because I remember the problems I had when I was home educated. None of them are academic, they’re all social.
It sounds trite but to a certain degree you have to learn to fit-in, which means doing the same things everybody else does. All the other kids in his class are having the same experience and missing out on that will effect him.
But then I think, what is he missing out on? Watching youtube and eating cakes?
Being home educated
I’m often surprised when I meet a home educated adult. You can’t really tell. But as children they stand out like a sore thumb.
My best friend once said to me that she could see me change when I started school again. I got less…weird.
The difference isn’t something you can put your finger on, it’s a general way about a child. They might talk too much like an adult for example, or they might walk around with food on their face without noticing.
Apart from the bad haircuts and corduroys, kids who are home educated have a certain vulnerability about them, it’s a kind of dreaminess. Whenever there’s a home ed kid on Child Genius they never have quite the drive that the other children have, they don’t appear to care. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, winning an ‘I’m clever’ award isn’t really worth the pressure and excitement it’s attributed.
The thing is though, that the kids who win Child Genius don’t care too much either, but they do play to win.
Why I still can’t drive
It’s never been absolutely critical that I learn to drive so I never have. I work from home, I live in a city, I have a bike, and most importantly I don’t like being instructed.
I’ll avoid doing something I don’t enjoy unless I’m forced to. Just like most other people really. I think back to secondary school and remember that it was about 7 years of doing things I didn’t like doing after an easy 4 years of sitting in my room drawing pictures of spider-man and listening to music.
Really I think I’m trying to spare Yuri the pain I had assimilating as a child. Going back to secondary school after 4 years out was tough and the number of times I came home with black eyes makes me shudder as a parent now.
But I sort of knew it was good for me even at the time. I can remember my parents asking me if I still wanted to go to that school and I said it was fine. I couldn’t imagine any other school being much different and to be honest, I still can’t. That place had things to teach me, whether they were academic things or not is besides the point. I make more money now than most of my peers, and I know next year I’ll be earning more, I have a family and a beautiful home but I never had a single A grade GCSE.
The things we’re told are important, getting good marks at school, achieving awards and stickers, passing tests, they’re not really as important as simply doing common things that others share in.
My own parents were still right to home educate me. I wouldn’t swap back that experience for twice the black eyes I got from school. It’s given me a different perspective I think is invaluable and the lessons I missed from school were still waiting for me when I went back, but it was the other kids who did most of the teaching.
Many more parents are considering home educating their children in the UK. When I was young most schools were government run. Since then the government have sold most schools and relabelled them as academies. They’re still free for families but effectively run by independent companies who have their own standards and way of doing things.
Some academies aim at having exceptional discipline and the children aren’t allowed to talk in the corridors, others focus on meditative practices and yoga, there are some where the children sign a legal agreement before they can join and I suspect that many engage in sponsorship deals with advertising companies.
Yuri came home from school once with a branded pamphlet, telling him to keep his eye out for hidden easter-eggs in a Youtube advert.
We’re thinking, do we keep swapping and changing Yuri from school to school until we find the right variation, or do we just take him out of school and teach him ourselves?
Consistency is really important for children and asking our boy to keep swapping schools while we make up our minds isn’t fair.
It takes a whole village to raise a child
This is an African proverb that originates from the Igbo tribe of Nigeria — according to quotefancy.com it was Hilary Clinton who said it first.
My parents live in the town they grew up in and I attended the same primary school my dad went to. He knew it was a good school because he went there himself (I left to become home ed because my mum was having an experimental phase, not because my school was bad). On the way to the school we would pass my uncle’s house, at school I was a stones throw from my nan’s house and my best friend’s parents knew my own parents from childhood.
When I left my hometown to join a university I made a group of friends and we all moved to the same city afterwards, more than 100 miles from the town I grew up in. All of those friends are from various parts of the country, none of our families know one another. Many of those people had children and have since moved away.
We know some of our neighbours but only since we moved in, we wouldn’t have been to the same schools and we don’t know any of their extended family or, in fact, anybody that they know.
Luckily Ella’s mum moved close to us when Yuri was born but no one else from either of our families has been able to do that. She only knows the people she’s met since moving here.
Neither of us would move back to our hometowns because we’re from towns that are so far apart from each other. Moving now would also be jarring for Yuri who’s made his own friends at school and would mean starting all over again for him as well.
Our village consists of three adults in a village they don’t know very well.
So far we’ve chosen to keep Yuri in school because of his friends, we would home ed him if we had a community to do it in and some people do have that or are trying to start something like that for themselves, but we don’t know them.
I want my children to grow up and live around people they know. I want to build a community where I’m surrounded with people I trust. That’s what a village is. It’s more than just a group of people in the same place or a group people doing the same thing for a short time. It’s a group of people communicating, meeting and interacting day by day, year after year, who’s parents did the same thing.
It takes a whole village to raise a child and it takes a whole lifetime to make a village.