Mother Asks What to Do About Her “Dreamer” Son

A mother once asked me for advice on what to do about her son Randy, who has very big dreams, plans, and expectations.  (One of his plans was to build a raft.)  This is my response to those who have children that are very big dreamers:

Hm, what to do about your big dreamer whose ideas seem so impractical. Yes, I do have an idea. Don’t you be the one to show him his impracticality. Let natural consequences work for you. Let him come to the problems and solve them with your help or realize they can’t be solved. You will relieve yourself of a great deal of pressure. Both of you, actually. I’d recommend the books, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk and Between Parent and Child. The gist of those books is that the parent is the child’s advocate. Let him learn his hard knocks in the world and you be his safe place to fall. No idea is impossible. He might end up with a very primitive raft or he may come up with some way to make it happen that you couldn’t see or he may realize it can’t be done. But it won’t be you standing in his way. It’ll be you doing your best to help him find a way, without protecting him from reality. I don’t mean you’d pay for materials, for example. But maybe he wants to try to sell something at school to earn the money. Jordan and I made lollipops and he sold them in his dad’s retail store for extra money. But I had his first deduct the cost of materials and of my labor so he’d know his true profit.

I would focus on looking for opportunities for him to help in grown up ways and to dream with him on his big ideas.

Maybe you worry that you will have to make it happen in the end — like how you were willing to go along on the raft as long as you thought he wasn’t serious. And then it was when YOU saw the barriers. Of course you will see these sooner than he does. But if you let him find them out for himself, you are no longer the bringer of the bad news. Life will teach him those lessons and in a more real way. And who knows? he might surprise you with clever ideas of how to make his ideas happen. Maybe that’s his gift. Only by letting him try will you (both) know.

A little while later, I got a response from the child in question’s mother:
I am so glad you gave me that advice on how to handle Randy’s big dreams. He recently abandoned his previous raft idea and decided he wanted to build a raft out of styrofoam scraps he got at a friend’s house. I withheld my “reasons why that won’t work” and instead found myself saying, “How can I help?” Well, he managed to fasten some wood to the styrofoam, lash it together with string and straps (that’s the part I helped with – he did almost the whole thing himself and was still in charge of my part.) When it was all ready we packed it in the van and took it to a stream about 15 minutes away. Randy wore his swimsuit just in case, even though it was only 50 degrees out, and of course a life vest since the water was a little deep in parts – and went down the stream on that raft! He taped on cookies for a snack (I didn’t tell him they’d get all wet, which they did, but he was OK with that because I let him try.) He was so proud, and we took his picture. Surprisingly, the raft held up until he stepped on it to climb out, and it broke in half. But he did get his rafting trip on his own raft, and his thoughts weren’t “Oh no, my raft broke,” but “What can I do different next time.” So I thank you for that wonderful experience. His current project is trying to make his Yerf dog (kind of like a “bigwheel” for big kids) fly. He’s rigged up a chain of sorts between the front and back wheels with the intention that if he pedals fast enough, this chain will transfer energy into 2 arrows he’s taped together like helicopter blades, and it will lift him up. Now if that works, I’ll be sure to call the newspaper! But we are having fun working on it together. He wants to go on-line next to see if there is any info on making bikes fly…..

Same mother a season later: It’s a snow day today, and Randy built an “ice rink” in our back yard – George was discouraging him but I remembered the incident with the raft so decided just to let it go where it would. He dug out the surface in the snow, put a tarp down and banked the sides. Then there it sat for about a week until yesterday when we noticed it was filling with rain water. We knew it would be freezing over night so we (Randy and I) went out a filled tubs with water to dump in the area. As we were doing this (and I was feeling it in my back, although honestly having fun with it) Randy asked if it brought back childhood memories, since Dad built us an ice rink every year when I was little. I replied, yes, but he used the hose. Then we just looked at each other and laughed – of course – the hose! So we hooked it up and it was much easier. It will be another fond memory and I’m so glad you gave me that advice those years ago about letting kids find their own limits, not set them for them.

Same mother very recently, whose son is now 18:  Randy  is working on designing a t-shirt and hopes to become an overnight millionaire with it. I’ve brought up having a business plan, maybe taking a “how to start a business” class at the community college, but he’s hoping to have a couple famous people wear his shirt and have business take off from there. I’m available if he needs help (which he hasn’t asked for, but I let him know to ask if he needed it) but I’m not being a naysayer or putting up roadblocks. Who knows – Randy does seem to have that good luck streak. You’ve given me lots of good advice over the years, and the one that has really hit home was to let the kids run with it and not be their obstacle – I keep a picture of Randy on his homemade raft with that silly grin on his face up in my room and look at it every day as a reminder.

Coping with Doubts

(The following was a letter sent to Growing Without Schooling Newsletter that I thought I would share with you.)
Dear GWS,
I truly believe, though, that it is the parent who sets the tone and that once the parent has handled his/her own doubts, the child’s dwindle.  My doubts tend to surface toward the end of the “school year” when I must admit that I never did get around to most of the wonderful projects and learning activities that I envisioned in September.  Then I wonder whether I am ruining my son’s life by not making sure he knows what he ought to know. These doubts surface other times of the year, too.  But because I’ve read and re-read John Holt, GWS and other supportive literature and I’ve discussed these issues alot with other “unschoolers”, my doubts are short-lived and I once again am confident.  This problem never becomes an issue for my son, though sometimes I am prompted to attempt some sort of schoolish pursuit for a while and my son bears with me on this for a short time before he helps set me back on course.

We weathered the storm of all my son’s friends going off to school and them telling him he should go to.  I arrived at a standard patter:  first I’d ask them if they liked school.  Only about 20% said yes, so I’d ask them which they like better, school or vacation.  I’m sure the answer to that one is obvious to GWS readers.  So my son saw that all the apparent enthusiasm for school was just hype.  We also played school–I’d make him a lunch, then I’d put on a hat and become the bus driver and would “drive him to school”  (I’d drive around the block).  Then I’d be the teacher and would call roll.  We’d do classes, have recess, and such. About 3 or 4 days of this at the beginning of his kindergarten and first grade years, and he’d feel he wasn’t missing anything and would bore of the game and we’d be back to living real life again.

As time went on, my son’s schooled peers became thoroughly indoctrinated into the idea that “you won’t learn anything and you’ll never get a job, if you don’t go to school”.  Some parents even tried to convince JP (my mom’s nickname for our son) of this.  But I just kept on top of it with my own “indoctrination” program–I’d point out to JP the things that he knew that the other kids didn’t know.  Then when he landed his first job at an antique store, sorting marbles for minimum wage, at the ripe old age of 9, he knew for sure that the job issue was hype, too.

Our society has a very extensive advertising campaign on the “importance” of school so I’ve also been very active at promoting homeschooling to my son and at pointing out ways in which he is lucky because he does it.  When we’re having a great time at the beach in the middle of the day, I’ll say “Gee, you could be in school right now”.  When there’s alot of kids at our house because their mothers don’t want the gang at their houses, I point out how lucky JP is that his mom loves having him around all the time. When we drive by a school and the kids are inside, I mention how lucky JP is that he isn’t cooped up in a classroom, sitting at a desk.  If the kids are on the playground, I make a comment about their “token” 20 minutes outside, probably spent teasing each other.  When he asks me some deeply felt question and we have a great conversation about it, I point out that he’d not have been allowed to ask that question in school.

Occasionally JP is put on the spot because he doesn’t really read yet.  Once a friend invited him to church, and we both thought it would be a good experience.  It turned out that they went to Sunday school and had to write essays.  Of course, JP was completely embarrassed by the fact that the teacher had to write everything for him, even though he’s theoretically in 4th grade.  This comes up at other times, too, and it is a difficult situation for JP to deal with.  But because I have no serious doubts about the path we’re on, I don’t get stuck in this problem.  After all, it’s tough for kids to deal with any ways in which they are different from the other kids.  If it weren’t homeschooling, it would be something else.  My confidence helps JP through these rough times even though he really doesn’t know how to handle other people’s questions.  For example, today he was concerned about going to a birthday party because he thought the adults might ask him what school he goes to.  Once they heard he was homeschooled, he thought they’d then ask him to read some words to see if homeschooling works.  Of course, that’s unlikely, but it is possible.  I made some suggestions: he could ignore them or ask them why they wanted to know, for example.  But he pointed out it’s not especially realistic to expect a kid to stand up to an adult like that.  I don’t have any answers for him except to tell him that he’ll run into things like this all his life, where he has to choose to stand up for his believes or figure out some way to avoid confrontation over them.  He seemed satisfied with this and went off to the party and had no problems.

I believe that we make problems for ourselves when we think we can come up with answers for our kids that will make everything ok for them.  If we look at our own selves, we can see that we have ALOT to learn yet.  I think that when we accept that about ourselves, we demonstrate to our kids that problems and difficulties don’t mean there’s anything wrong.  They just mean we have more to learn.  And when we let our children know that we trust them to come up with their own solutions, we teach them to trust their own inner voices.  Heck, I’ve often found that my son’s solutions are as good or better than mine. And when we take the viewpoint that we’re all learners and we can each learn from the other, the pressure is no longer on the parent to know and solve everything…and without the pressure, thankfully, we seem to know more and come up with better solutions.

I started a support group in my area and have developed a terrific group of friends for myself and my son as a result.  And the more he reads GWS, the more he’ll feel kinship with those who write in and the many others who subscribe.  There are many of us pulling for him!

He Doesn’t Want to Study

Dear Gail,
I wrote to you a few months ago with questions about homeschooling in Maui County.  I’m running into some issues, and I was wondering if you had some advice.

We homeschooled last spring semester, took a long break for summer and then started back the last 2 weeks.  After the “honeymoon” period was over last spring, my oldest son started running into some problems.  He’s very bright, a 2nd grader reading at 4th or 5th grade level.  He loves to learn, and I’ve watched him in both public and private classrooms, where he has thrived.  (We began homeschooling for more family time, and more quality one-on-one time, and educational opportunities.)  Instead of thriving now, he is miserable.  He takes 45 min. to do a simple language page, has a melt-down if I give him even slightly corrective feedback, complains and whines much of the school day.  This is totally out of character for him.  I am not that picky about his work, and constantly encouraging him.  He is normally (and the rest of the day is) a happy kid who loves others and behaves very well.  I have tried adding work to stimulate him, taking work away to take the pressure off.  I’ve tried positive and negative reinforcement (time-outs to stickers, etc.) when he behaves like this.  Now, I’m totally out of ideas.  We don’t have alot of options here, and this really needs to work, but this cannot go on.  My other son is normally the distracted one, and he has been an angel – working hard and excelling every day.

I’ve searched on-line for help and I have 5-6 books at home on homeschooling, and no real solutions.  Do you have any suggestions?

Thank you for your time,

Dear Meredith,

Gosh, I’d love to come meet your family and see for myself what’s happening!  But on the basis of what you’ve written, I’ll tell you what I think.  But what I think is based on my assumptions about kids and learning and I can appear pretty extreme in my views sometimes and if they are too out there, I hope they don’t offend.

First, I don’t believe in homeschooling in a hierarchical way.  When the parent has too much say about what is learned, when or how, then I feel the child has all the disadvantages of school (being controlled) and none of the advantages (lots of kids around).  So I am a believer in responding to the child and his call for knowledge.

I also don’t believe in grade levels.  Adults are all over the place in their knowledge and nobody worries about their grade levels.  A child might be reading books most adults couldn’t begin to comprehend (on computers, for example) and yet seem slow on other things….like math maybe.  The only two times grade levels were important to us were:

  1. when our son wanted to go to school and wanted to be placed at grade level.  Because he wanted to reach grade level, he ended up cracking the whip on me to work with him more!  He needed no coaxing from me.  When he took the tests, after about 3 months of study, he scored grade 12 +, and:
  2. when he got his GED, which is a high school diploma in Hawaii, he wanted to score in the “Elite 300 Club”  (it’s scored differently now so the numbers don’t have meanings but it’s the idea).   He could only miss one or two questions on each section to do that — an incredibly difficult goal.  He was fanatical about studying and spent like 8 hours a day at it.  I’d be trying to convince him to take breaks and he wouldn’t.  This from a kid who had only wanted to skate and bodyboard!  He scored 322.

Conclusion:  when it was important to him, he needed no external motivation.

Along these lines, there is a book, “Punished by Rewards.”  I haven’t read it myself but the title tells it all and I believe that, too.  I don’t believe there is any reason to study anything except if one wants to learn about that subject for ones own use.  Similarly, don’t the right thing.  I always told him we do this (be generous or kind or whatever) because it’s the right thing to do.  Not because of any gain we’d get for doing it or consequence from not doing it.

Your son might also enjoy the competition of a school setting.  Mine was like that.  He would ask for check lists so he could mark off what he’d done and feel he’d accomplished something.  But what went on the lists to do were his idea, not mine.  Our son didn’t (and still doesn’t) like to be taught or corrected.  When he asks me how to spell a word,  he just wants the spelling and gets really irritated if I try to give him a rule so he’ll do better the next time.  But his spelling has improved greatly doing it his way and is now near perfect.  And he’s a wonderful writer.

What I’d suggest is that you sit down with your son and ask him what he thinks is going on and what he thinks would work and what he wants to learn about and when and where he wants to study.  We mostly studied on days of no surf.  Or rainy days.  Sometimes outside in the woods.

I hope this helps.  At very least, it’ll be food for thought.