Self-Directed Life: Get on the Weird Train
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Hey guys,

How was your week?

Do I detect the smell of angst in the air? Some kids are heading back to school and others are whooping it up at the suddenly not-so-crowded playground.

Lots of emails coming in that sound like “am I doing this right” and “talk me off the ledge” and “stress insomnia.”

When Facebook fills up with first-day-of-school portraits, there’s a kind of psychic seismic shift as some of us ask ourselves, Are my kids even out of bed yet?…

I had an interesting conversation with a PBH friend about how we make all of these choices in order to give ourselves more freedom and a more relaxed timeline and then we STILL STRESS about not aligning with the outside culture and what they’re doing.

We opt for more freedom and a more relaxed schedule and then we freak out and stuff our week full of activities … because that emptiness has so much promise and possibility … until … it takes … too long … to be filled with something obviously worthwhile. Eek. Better sign up for something…

Self-directed learning doesn’t clip along at the same rate as a boxed curriculum. Organic, DIY, ebb and flow — these are not terms that are generally used to denote speed.

Combine the pace of self-directed learning with the undefined nature of WHAT exactly will be learned and you’re now experiencing what it is to step completely off the more traveled path. Fun!

I’ve had this sentence written at the top of my notes for awhile:
How okay are we with having kids that stand out / don’t fit in?

As soon as you opt for homeschooling (and I know not all of us homeschool, but don’t worry, you’ll get roped into this in a second), you are boarding the Weird Train. You are now “not like most people.”

Maybe you live in one of those magic areas with huge numbers of homeschoolers/unschoolers and tons of supportive community (are your streets paved with gold? with Pikachus?) — but even then, if you do ONE THING DIFFERENT from your peers, you’re now in an even smaller subset of Weird.

If your kids do go to school but in their free time (they actually have free time?!) you let them build a stage in the backyard or recreate Walnut Grove in Minecraft, we’re at your station now — please board the train.

I’m very interested in social engineering and nudges. Last week I mentioned a favorite book, Mindless Eating, which has a lot of good examples of this. You can change people’s behavior by adding just a *tiny* bit of friction to their choices. Shawn Achor writes in his book The Happiness Advantage that in order to get himself to practice his guitar (which he WANTED to do — but that doesn’t make it any easier, does it?) he had to put the TV remote 10 ft away from the couch and put the guitar ON the couch … already out of its case. Having to get up and walk 10 feet (especially when the remote was right there) was enough friction to keep him from practicing.

Okay, so what does this have to do with what we’re talking about. Well, think about it — society has a LOT of friction built in for NOT being weird … for doing the same thing your family and friends are doing … for not standing out … for fitting in.

I bet you’ve experienced some of that friction. Maybe at Thanksgiving. Maybe at the playground.

And the deeper you go into not-fitting-in territory, the more friction you’ll experience. I remember a friend saying that everyone cheers when you decide to breastfeed but eventually they start saying, “Are you STILL breastfeeding?!” In the same way, your homeschool group is pro-homeschooling, but how many people are pro-YOUR way of homeschooling? Sometimes just you.

Not a lot of people are comfortable being The Only Ones Doing This. Even the ones who persist aren’t necessarily comfortable, especially at the beginning.

Aligning your choices with your values is not a one-time choice — it requires persistence: over time, in different places, with different people, when you’re feeling strong, when you’re feeling beleaguered… This is a lifestyle, and it may get easier with time, especially as you see the rewards, but it isn’t going away.

If you practice PBH and hand over the reins to your child at least PART of the time, you are already standing out and often not fitting in. You’re encouraging your child to pursue whatever interests her — WHATEVER interests her. You are probably not going to blend.

Then your kid is weird and you can whisper to yourself as you stare at the ceiling at night, “…and it’s my fault.”

How comfortable are we standing out/not fitting in?

How comfortable are we with our kids standing out/not fitting in?

Even when we’re okay with taking the social hit, it’s so much more painful to watch our kids venture out on that limb.

Even when we know we’re making the right decisions, it is hard not to ride the brake once in awhile. We want to let our kids lead … but wait, where are you going, noooo, not there, that’s not what I had in mind, didn’t you ask a question a few weeks ago about starfish? I’d be happy to take you to the aquarium…

We try to mitigate the weirdness. As much as we want to support self-directed learning, we find ourselves wincing and practicing a little selective hearing, a little tunnel vision. We think maybe we can pick and choose what to notice, what to support.

We want to give our kids free rein but we want them to use that freedom to do something that will look intellectual and worthwhile to friends and relatives — is that really too much to ask?!


Being true to your own interests and your own IDEAS almost always requires standing out/not fitting in.

This is true for us, not just the kids.

Getting comfortable with discomfort is step one. There isn’t always time at the grocery store to give a brief PBH seminar after your child has just informed your old boss that she’s learning about My Little Pony this year.

This is the work that precedes the work — standing firm, standing out.

Accepting that what sets your kid on fire and brings out their enthusiasm and effort is probably not going to align with the fourth-grade curriculum at Woodrow Wilson Elementary.

Accepting that other people are not going to throw a parade in your honor when you support your child’s self-directed learning. They’re going to make that face in the cereal aisle — you know the face I mean.

Society builds friction into the system to keep us all moving along in the same direction, doing the same things. That friction stops the majority of people from stepping off the path.

You can do a little self-nudging. You can remind yourself of your goals by advertising to yourself. You can boost the signal of the people who share your goals and turn the volume down on the people who are unsupportive. You can reflect more on your child’s progress so you don’t forget why you’re doing all of this.

In the end, being okay with standing out and not fitting in is probably the path toward getting what you want in life — unless what you want just happens to match exactly what everyone else wants.

In the end, getting to know yourself, being comfortable with yourself, knowing your particular interests, having faith in your own ideas … these are things that will help you do things that matter to you and live in a way that feels right to you.

It’s not something that other people are going to make happen for you — it’s DIY or nothing.

Just attempting PBH is walking the path you want your children to walk — following your own heart about what’s important, learning, experimenting, struggling, making mistakes, solving problems, standing out, not fitting in.

You doing this work makes it more likely that your child will do it, too.

So remember, when you’re trapped in the cereal aisle and someone’s giving you that look, it’s a Weird Train, not a roller skate. There are others out here doing the same work, wrestling with the same doubts, making the same mistakes — because we share some of the same big goals.

Touch base with that community, turn that volume up and the other one down, and stay the course — because what makes you weird is what makes you awesome.
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. — The Top Five Regrets of the Dying
You will either step forward into growth, or back into safety. — Abraham Maslow
The things that we love tell us what we are. — Thomas Aquinas
What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend. — Seneca
Loved this post on The Lincoln Memorial and the Five Why’s — so applicable to PBH. How much time would we save ourselves if we took our time and observed, listened, journaled, and reflected before leaping to try to solve an apparent problem?


I shared this David Orr piece on Facebook — it resonates so strongly with what we discuss about creating an environment that supports self-directed learning:

“Mind and body are imprinted in the most fundamental ways by the ‘pattern of place’ experienced in childhood.”

“Architectural design, in other words, is…a form of pedagogy that instructs us well or badly, but never fails to instruct.”

Our choices in our space affect what our children can and will do there. The environment is talking to them — is it supporting your goals or working against them?


This is why we don’t want to rush to “name” a project too early:

“For most children, childhood isn’t about passion, but rather about exploration.”

“Picking a passion too early, or artificially, halts the exploration.”

A project is an organic exploration — an adventure! — and naming it too early can put up artificial walls and keep a child from venturing naturally from one question to the next … ending up somewhere we couldn’t have predicted. Name them at the end!

I storified my tweetstorm about this article (about the extreme things parents do to help their kids discover “passion” as they’re graduating high school … so they’ll be able to write a killer college essay -__-) here.


Last call if you want to join us for the fall session of the PBH Master Class â€” we’d love it if you could join us! :"D)
Thank you as always for your continued support. If there’s anything you need, just hit reply on this email and let me know!

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