Questioning the Back-To-School Default

Back-to-school time is upon us. My Instagram feed is starting to fill with first-day photos as a new school year begins this week in some parts of the country. For those of us who homeschool, we often get asked, “So, why did you decide to homeschool?” We respond with various personal and educational reasons, including the top motivator for homeschoolers on national surveys: “concern about the school environment.” What always strikes me, though, is that parents who send their kids to school never get asked this question. When was the last time someone asked a parent, “So, why did you decide to send your child to school?”

Societal Expectations and Defaults

Schooling is the default. It’s the societally expected thing to do. It’s also mandated of parents under a legal threat of force, so they may not think much of it. The trouble is that schooling is beginning to take on a much larger role in a child’s life, disconnecting children from family at much earlier ages and for longer portions of a child’s day and year. Even compulsory schooling laws are expanding in many states, to begin at age five and extend to age 18.

I wrote an op-ed about this trend in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, arguing that there are benefits to delaying early schooling for most children and potential harms with sending children to school early, such as increased ADHD diagnosis rates. It can be worthwhile to question the default.

In his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant writes that a hallmark of originals and change-makers is their tendency to question, and often reject, societal defaults. Grant writes:

Justifying the default system serves a soothing function. It’s an emotional painkiller: If the world is supposed to be this way, we don’t need to be dissatisfied with it. But acquiescence also robs us of the moral outrage to stand against injustice and the creative will to consider alternative ways that the world could work. The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. (p. 7)

Better options than compulsory mass schooling do exist, and many more would be created if more parents challenged the default. We should be outraged that schooling has seized so much of childhood and adolescence, particularly when the results of all this schooling are lackluster at best and concerning at worst. We should be outraged that government schools increasingly look like prisons and that students are being schooled for jobs that no longer exist. We should question whether a system in which only one-quarter of high school seniors are proficient in math, and only a bit over one-third of them are proficient readers, should be given greater influence and authority over young people’s lives. We should really wonder if it makes sense to place our children in this swelling system, whether they are toddlers or teens. Surely, we should “consider alternative ways that the world could work.”

Sign-Up: Receive Kerry’s Weekly Parenting and Education Newsletter!

Alternative Options

What are these alternative ways? Jessica Koehler has a great article this month at Psychology Today where she lists some of these alternatives and also explains her own journey of shifting from schooling to homeschooling for her children. In addition to homeschooling/unschooling, parents can delay preschool and kindergarten, explore various co-ops and learning centers, take advantage of one of the many micro-schools that are sprouting nationwide, and explore alternative programs for teens, like community college enrollment, travel, or apprenticeships. Or they can build their own alternative to school with other like-minded parents. Other options are virtual learning programs, including public ones, and nearby public charter schools or private schools that can sometimes offer flexible learning and attendance options.

Questioning the schooling default, and acting upon that doubt, can be difficult. It is much easier to put a child on a school bus and be just like everyone else. It is easier to go along. But it may not be better—for you, your child, or the world you could help to create. As Adam Grant says, it’s the non-conformists who move the world. These originals are the ones who question the status quo, refuse to tolerate discontent, and imagine new possibilities. Grant writes:

Ultimately, the people who choose to champion originality are the ones who propel us forward….They feel the same fear, the same doubt, as the rest of us. What sets them apart is that they take action anyway. (p. 28)

We all care deeply about educating children to be literate, competent, inventive, compassionate, and thoughtful. It’s time we question if compulsory mass schooling really has the ability to facilitate these outcomes, for our children and others, or whether alternatives to school might do the job better. It’s time to challenge defaults.

Open This Content

“España Es Como Una Madre”

Our most memorable Uber driver in Madrid was a young Pakistani man.  We gave him twenty minutes; he gave us his odyssey.  Too bad I failed to record the conversation, because this would have been a great interview to broadcast on Spanish radio.

Our driver’s story: Back in Pakistan, he lived in hunger, so he left home to seek his fortune.  In popular parlance, he became part of the “European migrant crisis.”  He traveled solo, journeying from Pakistan to Iran to Turkey.  Then he zigzagged around the EU, passing through Greece, Romania, Germany, Italy, and France.  Our driver gave few details, but each of these countries treated him badly.  He had to hide from the authorities, and could not legally work.

After three months, however, he reached Spain – and his life turned around.  My Spanish sources tell me that migrants must normally wait three years to receive work permission, but my driver somehow managed to get his work papers almost immediately.

Three years later, he speaks Spanish, has plenty to eat, and loves his new home.  Indeed, he practically describes Spain as a libertarian paradise: work hard, don’t hurt people, don’t steal, and you’ll have a good life.  Using his Spanish travel documents, he was even able to visit Britain.  He liked it, but saw no hope of ever legally working there.

My Spanish is very poor, but I had no trouble understanding our driver when he gushed, “España es como una madre” – “Spain is like a mother.”  He didn’t say a word about government benefits; he was overjoyed to live in a country where he could live in peace and get ahead by working hard.  Though we didn’t even have a language in common, he was my kind of guy.  The American Dream is also the Spanish Dream, because both are the World Dream.

Open This Content

The Time Is Now

Don’t let the following thought stop you from sharing what you have to offer:

“But I haven’t been 100% consistent with my philosophy.”

Nobody is 100% on their A-game all the time. We all fall short of the standards and ideals we pursue. That’s why we pursue them: because we understand that character is a journey, not a “one and done” transaction.

The basis for creating value isn’t “I feel satisfied with how perfect I am.”

The basis for creating value is “I know that I’m capable of making a positive difference in spite of how imperfect I am.”

If you have something to give, give. If a certain form of generosity or service brings meaning to your life, don’t let imposter syndrome stop you.

“But nobody cares about what I have to offer. I’m just a silly fool who forgot to stick to my diet today. I’m just some goofball who forgot about an appointment today. I’m just a wannabe who still struggles with this or that.”

Don’t censor your convictions because you missed going to the gym today, or because you lost your cool today, or because you weren’t sufficiently “enlightened” today.

Nothing useful would ever get done if we all required ourselves to feel fully enlightened or fully evolved before standing up for a cause. And can you imagine how obnoxious today’s innovators and leaders would sound if their main reason for speaking was because of how self-righteous they felt?

The power to create change doesn’t come from an attitude that says “After spending many years of perfecting a fool-proof system for hacking every area of my life, I’m going to show the rest of you losers how to get everything you want without a single exception.”

The power to create change comes from an attitude that says “Sometimes I feel like I’m crushing it and sometimes I don’t, but here’s what I’ve learned and here’s what I’m still learning.”

If you’re still in the process of failing and figuring things out, then you’re right where you need to be.

Don’t hide your gifts in anticipation of a day when you feel acceptable and accomplished. Start serving now and the rest will follow.

Open This Content

The ADHD Overdiagnosis Epidemic Is a Schooling Problem, Not a Child One

Childhood exuberance is now a liability. Behaviors that were once accepted as normal, even if mildly irritating to adults, are increasingly viewed as unacceptable and cause for medical intervention. High energy, lack of impulse control, inability to sit still and listen, lack of organizational skills, fidgeting, talking incessantly—these typical childhood qualities were widely tolerated until relatively recently. Today, children with these characteristics are being diagnosed with, and often medicated for, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at an astonishing rate.

Early Schooling Contributes to Increased Diagnoses

While ADHD may be a real and debilitating ailment for some, the startling upsurge in school-age children being labeled with and medicated for this disorder suggests that something else could be to blame. More research points to schooling, particularly early schooling, as a primary culprit in the ADHD diagnosis epidemic.

Over the last several decades, young people are spending more time in school and school-like activities than ever before. They are playing less and expected to do more at very young ages. When many of us were kids, kindergarten was mellow, playful, and short with few academic expectations. The youngest children are the ones most often caught in the ADHD medical dragnet.Now, 80 percent of teachers expect children to learn to read in kindergarten. It’s not the teachers’ fault. They are responding to national curriculum frameworks and standardized testing requirements that over the past two decades have made schooling more oppressive—particularly for young children.

The youngest children are the ones most often caught in the ADHD medical dragnet. Last fall, Harvard researchers found that early school enrollment was linked to significantly higher rates of ADHD diagnosis. In states with a September 1 school enrollment age cutoff, children who entered school after just turning five in August were 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than children born in September who were about to turn six. Immaturity, not pathology, was the real factor.

The ADHD Fallacy

Marilyn Wedge, author of A Disease Called Childhood: Why ADHD Became An American Epidemic, sounds the alarm on ADHD overdiagnosis. In a Time Magazine article called “The ADHD Fallacy,” she writes:

By nature, young children have a lot of energy. They are impulsive, physically active, have trouble sitting still, and don’t pay attention for very long. Their natural curiosity leads them to blurt out questions, oblivious in their excitement to interrupting others. Yet we expect five- and six-year-old children to sit still and pay attention in classrooms and contain their curiosity. If they don’t, we are quick to diagnose them with ADHD.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percent of very young children (ages two to five) who were diagnosed with ADHD increased by over 50 percent between 2007/2008 and 2011/2012. As of 2016, data show that 9.4 percent of all American children, or over six million kids, had been diagnosed with ADHD, and almost two-thirds of current ADHD-diagnosed children were taking medication for it. A March 2019 report on ADHD by Blue Cross and Blue Shield found that among commercially insured children of all ages, ADHD diagnosis rates increased 30 percent in just eight years.

While the symptoms of ADHD may be troublesome, looking first at the environment, rather than the child, may be an important step toward curbing the ADHD diagnosis epidemic. In his book, ADHD Does Not Exist, Dr. Richard Saul, a Chicago behavioral neurologist, explains that individuals diagnosed with ADHD either have external factors that exacerbate normal symptoms or have some other underlying condition that should be identified and treated. In the latter instance, he finds that once the underlying condition is discovered and treated, the ADHD symptoms usually disappear. In the former instance, changing the environment is a key step toward improvement. This is true for both children and adults with an ADHD diagnosis. Dr. Saul writes:

Like many children who act out because they are not challenged enough in the classroom, adults whose jobs or class work are not personally fulfilling or who don’t engage in a meaningful hobby will understandably become bored, depressed and distracted. In addition, today’s rising standards are pressuring children and adults to perform better and longer at school and at work.

An Environmental Mismatch

Addressing an environmental mismatch for ADHD-diagnosed adults could mean switching one’s job or field of study or pursuing a true passion. Maybe you’re an accountant who wants to be a carpenter or a nurse who wants to be an entrepreneur. For ADHD children, changing the environment could mean removing children from restrictive schooling altogether. As Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray writes:

What does it mean to have ADHD? Basically, it means failure to adapt to the conditions of standard schooling. Most diagnoses of ADHD originate with teachers’ observations.

Jennifer Walenski saw firsthand how transformative removing her ADHD-diagnosed child from standard schooling could be. She shares her family’s journey at The Bus Story and told me:

Our kids were actually in public school originally. Our son also was diagnosed with both ADHD and autism while he was in the school system. And they wanted to medicate him. But we said no. Then we took him and his sister out of school and began homeschooling them. Fast forward several years, he has absolutely no need at all for medication. He is just a normal boy who did not belong in that kind of environment. And most of us don’t. Think about it.

Walenski’s experience echoes that of other parents who removed their ADHD-diagnosed children from standard schooling. In an informal survey analysis, Gray discovered that when ADHD-labeled children left school for homeschooling, most of them no longer needed medication for ADHD symptoms. Their ADHD characteristics often remained but were no longer problematic outside of the conventional classroom.

Self-Directed Learning

Gray’s analysis also revealed that the ADHD-labeled young people who fared best outside of standard schooling were those who were able to learn in a more self-directed way. He found that the

few kids in this sample who were still on ADHD medications during homeschooling seemed to be primarily those whose homeschooling was structured by the parent and modeled after the education one would receive in a conventional school.

Replicating school-at-home can also replicate the problematic behaviors found at school, whereas moving toward unschooling, or self-directed education, can give young people the freedom to flourish.

Ending the ADHD overdiagnosis epidemic depends on a societal reality check where we no longer pathologize normal childhood behaviors. Much ADHD-labeling originates from forced schooling environments with learning and behavioral expectations that are developmentally inappropriate for many children. Freeing young people from restrictive schooling and allowing them to learn and grow through their own self-directed curiosity can lead to happier and healthier families and children.

Open This Content

Jared Interviewed on the Liberty Weekly Podcast (42m) – Episode 009

Episode 009: Jared is interviewed by Patrick MacFarlane of the Liberty Weekly podcast. Jared documents his intellectual journey on the way to starting his own podcast. Along the way, they discuss his show topics including the IRS’ own justification for taxation and the danger of libertarian echo chambers.

Listen to Episode 009 (42m, mp3, 64kbps)

Subscribe via RSS here, or in any podcast app by searching for “voluntary contrarian”. Support the podcast at Patreon.com/evc or PayPal.me/everythingvoluntary.

Open This Content

Jared Interviewed on the Everything Voluntary Podcast (34m) – Episode 005

Episode 005: Jared was a guest on the Everything Voluntary podcast in May 2018. With host Skyler Collins, they discussed the following topics: the Pacific northwest, career electrician, second marriage and dating, his political journey, Jack Spirko, Stefan Molyneux, Austrian economics, Lysander Spooner, challenging jurisdiction, Larken Rose, cognitive dissonance, outgroup bigotry, and more.

Listen to Episode 005 34m, mp3, 64kbps)

Subscribe via RSS here, or in any podcast app by searching for “voluntary contrarian”. Support the podcast at Patreon.com/evc or PayPal.me/everythingvoluntary.

Open This Content