beginning to see why people home school

by Janelle Hanchett

What part of this am I missing?

Somebody explain to me how competition is useful in grammar school. I don’t get it. Or maybe I’m just too emotional or protective. I don’t know.

We went to my daughter’s “science fair” last night. All the kids had displays of their science projects, which they had worked on for weeks. They were all very proud, parading their parents around to all the boards, showing them whose was whose, especially highlighting their own, of course. My daughter was proud of her work and loving that we were at her school. It was fun. Well it was fun until the principal informed us that they would be “announcing the science fair winners” in a few minutes.

Wait. What? Why?

Why do we need ‘winners?’ Why does it have to be a competition? How do you judge the independent efforts of a 3rd grader? How do you judge learning and exploration? And more importantly, why would you place them in a competition they are not emotionally ready to handle? Are these competitions for the child or are they for the over-engaged parents?

And if you must have a competition in 3rd grade, at least give the kid a CHOICE of whether or not she participates. This was a mandatory school project –that’s getting judged? So wrong on so many damn levels.

After seeing the other science projects, with their super complex presentations and perfectly aligned poster boards and color-coordinated everything and other obvious contributions by parents, I felt like saying to Ava “check it out. You aren’t going to win, little one. You aren’t going to win because daddy and I have the strange and radical opinion that kids should do their own work, without help or input of parents beyond subtle suggestions and hints, when the kid is stuck and explicitly asks for it. Consequently, your project looks like it was done by a 9-year-old.”

So the principal walks to the front of the room and all the kids with their hopeful, bright eyes and the parents – some looking intent and serious, others, like us, looking like we’re about to vomit – and she announces “first, second and third place” winners. I glance at Ava.

Her eyes burn red. She’s trying not to cry.

Half the room is trying not to cry.

And I run to her, torn as usual: wanting to cradle her but wanting her to learn that the world is a rough messed up place. Wanting her to fight her own battles, wanting to beat the principal and the fucktard PTA mom judges to listless, bloody pulps. So I say “Ah, baby. Let’s talk about it in the car,” hoping the walk across the parking lot will shed some light on it…give me the right words to say…give me just the thing to make her feel okay, to teach her the perfect lesson for this particular experience and make it all okay.

But I got nothin’.

As usual I flounder and struggle and try to explain that it doesn’t mean her project wasn’t great. It only means that a few people thought it wasn’t as great as the others…and it doesn’t matter what they think and who the hell are they to judge and they have their own motives, etc. etc. But she’s not an idiot. What’s the take away for her? What’s the ultimate message? Mine was not as good as the others. Mine didn’t win.


Period. End of story.

My project was not as good.

I am not as good.

And the pride she felt a few moments earlier vanished. And suddenly hers was second-rate and she was silly to hold our hands and parade us around. Because it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t a winner. The important people said so. There’s no ribbon on mine. Therefore, I lose.

Please somebody tell me how that’s helpful?

Because even if she were to win, what would she have then? An over-inflated sense of ego and superiority derived from an arbitrary judgment of irrelevant individuals. A feeling of success because other people approved of her work. Why not value the process? The journey. The fact that she did this work by herself and she did a good job. And that is enough in itself.

There is a place for competition. When a person is ready to compete. When a person is emotionally prepared to handle the loss. When a person can separate herself from the outcome, knowing a competition doesn’t define her value as a person.

But not now. Not in 3rd grade. Not when it’s all wrapped up in one.

What did I ultimately say?

“Ava, remember that Townes Van Zandt song… ‘Don’t let the bastards get you down?’ Well, this is exactly what he was talking about.”

Then I called my mom and told her about the bastards, and tried not to let them get me down either.

when in doubt, ask yourself…

  • Kimberly

    The longer my kids are in school, the more unbalanced my pro vs. con homeschooling list becomes. Unfortunately, the one thing on the con list is me, and clearly, I am not cut out for the job.

    I completely agree with your take on competition. I can’t think of a time when turning academics into a competition is ever appropriate. If kids want to compete, and some do, they can play a sport. And it they don’t have a competitive bone in their body (like me), then school should be safe place.

    • renegademama

      I don’t think I’m cut out for the job either. My son, who I’m seriously considering taking out of school, may end up setting things on fire at random instead of learning, but hey, we all gotta take risks.

      EXACTLY re: the sports. Word.

      • Dawn

        I frkn love the way u lay it all out!!thank u!!..I am “homeschooling”…more like unschooling actually..I don’t know what is better..its crazy..both ways.just one of the ways u actually get a break!(I’m a single mom of an autistic boy)..

    • David

      Trust me, it is nearly impossible to not do a better job homeschooling them than what they get at public/private school. My mother felt the same way but she did it for 4 children and she had no college education and no upper level math. Three of us graduated college (the other did not go by choice since colleges are going downhill as well)

    • Emily

      This is big for me on the competition. I am so completely and thoroughly anti-competitive, and I still have trouble shaking off my fear of competition, every day at work and in life. It’s a big part of my social anxiety that only becomes more crippling as I get older because there is NO FUCKING BREAK from the constant need to “prove your worth”, especially as a scientist. Seriously, my job is about proving my results, my analysis, my data (which is the fun part). Not my worth as a person.

  • Christina

    Aw… I remember when my son was in co-ed soccer in the 2nd grade. He was 8. During a game one of the girls on the team got mad at him for missing something and at the break proceeded to yell at him in front of everyone and call him ‘fat and lazy’. Now I understand some ‘type A’ personalities can get angry when they feel dissatisfied and I also understand that an 8 year old girl can be really bitchy at times. However as upset as I was upset by her actions I was sure that he would be defended for being treated poorly be a teammate that was showing poor sportsmanship. My heart sank as I watched in horror, the coach and ref that just stood there and did nothing. The kids came off the field to get new positions and even though everyone witnessed this behavior, not one single person said a word to her. I was floored. I wanted to walk out into the parking lot and key every single one of their cars. I literally had to leave. The look on my sons face kills me to this day. She was allowed to say these things because she was ‘good’ at soccer and helping the team ‘win’. My son was allowed to be humiliated by her while everyone watched because he was just out there for ‘fun’ and ‘exercise’. I went home and cried until they got home and I could barely face him. It was the first time I actually wanted to punch an 8 year old in the face.

    This would be the first of many disappointing encounters I would have in the beautiful town of Davis Ca. The amount of judging and ill treatment that my son has had to face has been really tough to handle. I was naive to think that because a person was educated they would be kind or caring of things like a child’s self esteem or treatment of said child based on your preconceived notions of things such as weight to level of effort.

    Yes I wrote a letter and yes I had a talk with the coach in private (and no I did not kick her ass like I wanted to) but nothing can take that moment out of my sons memory. This was the beginning of the decline of my admiration for Davis and pretty much all sports activities and for that matter most type A personalities. I did not just want to take my son out of school I wanted to take him out of this fucked up mean spirited over achieving society. I did not. He is doing ok. I hope he makes it to adulthood as I love him to death.

    • renegademama

      Okay, this story brought tears to my eyes. It is so excruciating.

      It also hit very close to home. I tried playing softball as a little girl and, in short, I sucked. But I didn’t know I sucked. I thought I was just a player like the other kids. But I was doing something wrong at some point (can’t even remember what), and the coach absolutely lost it at me. He flipped. In front of all the other girls. And the thing that killed me was that not only was it humiliating and I felt like a shitty person, but I felt like a complete LOSER because I sucked and didn’t even know it! I remember thinking “You’re a terrible player and didn’t even know! What kind of person would do that?!”

      My mom actually took me out of softball. And I have to say that honestly I grew up with a very powerful emotional response to organized sports: namely, I won’t do them. Never ever. I know that’s a little extreme, but the message “Janelle sucks at sports” hit me so hard, it never left. I swam on the high school swim team only because they agreed I never had to compete.

      So I FEEL for you and your son and it’s heartbreaking. You handled it so well though. He’ll pull through. I did.

      So glad you’re here.

      • Jason Strong

        You can’t lump all competitive sports in with what that asshat did to you. My father was my baseball coach and he firmly believed that kids who showed up and practiced and tried their best played. Those who missed practice and dogged it didn’t play. 2 years in a row we lost 1st place because my father walked the walk. The second year he benched our star pitcher because he thought he didn’t need to come out and practice with us. We put up a hell if a fight, but my dad stuck to his ideals of fair play and hard work is rewarded.
        I am sorry your coach did that, it wasn’t right on any level. But sports and competition is good for the soul.

        Jason S.

        • lu

          Cheers to your dad! Sounds like a stand up guy and a good example of how to be fair.

  • Erika

    Did Ava come up with the concept on her own? Do all the work on her own? Guess what! Most of the other kids didn’t! The projects were more than likely the brain children of the parents, and quite possibly gotten out of a book or off the internet. There are websites that are designed just to offer “winning” science fair projects! Yes! For grade school science fairs!
    Let us start children in their plagiarizing and idea stealing careers early!

    I firmly believe that school (public or private) is based on a subjective hierarchy of “popularity and anticipated success,” and this is where children learn that back stabbing, finger-pointing and blame placing is expected and the social norm, and that not accepting responsibility for one’s own actions (or inactions) is acceptable, and it is designed to suck the souls and creativity out of school children who are not already mindless drones. School is where the social pecking order and social chaos starts.

    Public school isn’t about getting an education; it is about thickening your skin enough so that you can deal with the assholes and back stabbers when you grow up. Because, little jerks grow up to be big jerks, and have more little jerks. If school were about education, then so much time wouldn’t be placed on standardized testing, where the report gives you a curve of where your student is rated on a national, school, and class level. Yes, let us show parents how well or poorly a child can figure out poorly written questions and fill in scantron bubbles on an arbitrary exam.

    And don’t think that the competition on mandated school assignments will end with science fairs. Just wait until you have in-class assignments where students have to make models of California Missions, and volcanos, and the solar system. They now sell kits in craft stores and hobby shops.

    It’s all a popularity contest, and students don’t learn because the parents are doing all of the work in order to 1) prevent their children from the suffering of embarrassment and disappointment, or 2) ensure a “win,” or 3) make up for the disappointments and screw-ups from when the parents were young. This is why we have so many people wanting to copy the work of others in the adult world. Their own creativity has been stifled. Why come up with something that is your own, but has the chance of being compared to the better works of others, when you can just copy the works of others and if it isn’t seen as being “good,” you can point your finger at the original that wasn’t your idea. If it is seen as wonderful, you take the credit.

    If your child’s teacher decides to have “class money” to teach the students about finances, and money management, beware! Some teachers give the money out based on student merit. Sounds good! But only as long as it is dealt out fairly. The amount of money you get is based on your grades, attendance, and correct answers in class. You also get prize money for having the best projects.

    I was in public school from Kindergarden through 4th grade. By the time I was in 4th grade, I was coming home sobbing every day because I could not understand why people had to be so disparaging towards others, and why the teacher hated me. Yes, she really did hate me. I had a negative self-esteem, and I was clinically depressed. What kind of sick situation creates a clinically depressed 9/10 year old? I would be in hysterics on Monday mornings. I didn’t want to go back to school. My mother pulled me out of public school, and home schooled me from 5th grade through the middle of 8th grade. At that point, my mother gave me a choice: Stay at home and have an excellent education, or go back to public school where I would have a mediocre education, but would learn to deal and cope with the jerks of society. I decided to go back to school on the condition that my education be supplemented at home.
    I think I had a wonderful and enriching experience through home schooling. I would learn about history, or geography and my parents would take me on a trip to actually go see the places and examples I was learning about in the books. If a parent has the time, and the resources to home school, I think it is a wonderful opportunity for an in-depth education.

    • renegademama

      This was awesome to read. Thanks for responding, Erika. I’ll probably direct message you at some point re: home school. I have some questions. After reading your comment, I’d really like to talk about this further – um, scary. I hate that word, but it’s an apt one at this point.

      Amazing that all those things are turned to competition.

      It will probably get me stoned to death or something, but I’m beginning to think that school is pretty much useful as far as it goes (which is about 3 inches), but as far as real education? Nope. Not gonna happen in a traditional classroom. After reading your comment, I was thinking about what I learned from grammar school — in addition to math and reading — and it is that I learned that I wasn’t as good as the other kids. My parents were divorced and we were poor as hell — therefore, we were second. My whole family. I had some pretty incredible teachers, well actually I had TWO. But I definitely still remember them.

      Anyway, I gotta go — need to get ready for that job thing I have.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Appreciate them.

    • Julie

      Thanks so much for all that info Erika and also thanks to Janelle for being so real and bringing up the whole competition thing. It did suck -a lot- when I was in school, but sadly, we’ve moved beyond that to a just totally nuts level of competition, shaming, etc. Seriously considering HS’ing my preschooler, and I often wonder if I’m cut out for it/not. Dialog like this = one determined Mama if I can keep my sanity down the road 🙂 one day at a time. My heart hurt for Ava when the prizes were handed out – love her name BTW. So proud of her for doing her own work! You’re a wise Mama and probably more sane B/C you’re not doing it for her. So remember this B/C one day she’ll have this epiphany and realize her parents aren’t quite as lame as she thought they were when she remembers the science fair when she was 9. Love your blog – Cheers

  • Shan

    My gut reaction at the start was that competition isn’t a four-letter word. But to spring it on a kid after a mandatory assignment does seem harsh. And, because I’m emotionally all over the freaking map, Ava’s burning tears made my eyes burn, too. Finally, to complement my fence wedgie, I totally get your point.

    • renegademama

      Ha! Fence wedgie. Rad.

      And yeah, competition absolutely has its place. Totally. And I certainly don’t baby my kids – you know I can’t stand that super touchy feely shit. But I think she should have a choice about participating, at least some time to prepare mentally. As you say, it was sprung on her. Bastards. 🙂

  • Crystal

    I can see both sides. While a mandatory assignment shouldn’t be judged (hello, isn’t that what a grade is for?), I do think it is important for children to learn that they wont win/ be the best at everything. Nor do they need to win/be the best at everything. I was a science nerd growing up. I won the science fairs(and yes, my parents made me do my own projects). I was HORRIBLE at writing and English stuff. I never won essay contests or spelling bees. My brain just didn’t(still doesn’t) work that way. My mom always told me that as long as I was trying my best then that was good enough. This all happened in elementary school, not junior high or high school. I learned that I didn’t have to be the best at everything, that everyone has certain things they are good at. I think society tells us that we have to be the best at everything, but it is our job to teach our children that they wont always be the best and that’s ok. Sometimes we will get our feeling hurt and want to cry and that’s ok too, but like the line in the movie “The Incredibles”, saying everyone is special is another way of saying no one is.

  • spanishinterpreter

    Kids really don’t need teachers and adults to facilitate competition for them–when they’re ready they will develop self-awareness and begin to compare themselves to their peers. It differs for every kid, but generally kids don’t crave competition until late elementary school or early middle school.

    During most of elementary school, competition is just not developmentally appropriate for kids. Respecting kids’ natural arc of development by not prematurely forcing competition upon them is not the same thing as constantly coaxing their self-esteem by falsely insisting they are awesome at everything. Normally developing young children naturally think they ARE awesome at everything most of the time–they don’t need adults to tell them. Did you see that little hop over the puddle–AWESOME! Look at the picture I drew–IT’S AWESOME! Listen to this hilarious joke that makes no sense–AWESOME! Just like Janelle the young softball player, I think most kids’ perspective is that they are pretty awesome at stuff. In my opinion, the inflated ego is what helps kids emotionally survive those years of relative incompetence when they really, truly are not good at most things yet. But they think they’re awesome, so actual skill level is not an issue for them. Self-awareness starts to emerge AFTER kids have acquired some real skills, thank goodness.

    The main thing I learned in elementary school was that I was better than everyone else, and while I’m glad I didn’t have to suffer feeling like I was inferior to others, a false sense of superiority is not a healthy outcome either. It had a pretty long-lasting and damaging effect on me, and also on others. I bet I was a lot like that Type A kid, looking down on the ‘dummies’ who weren’t as good at school as me. In my defense, I didn’t come to that conclusion on my own, it was the adults who drew up the comparisons among children and deemed me ‘superior’ based on a very narrow set of criteria which obviously did not include compassion or social skills. To think you can be an early reader and become an asshole as a result, all thanks to the twisted logic of elementary school.

  • Lena

    Okay, I am subscribing to your blog after reading this post. I am with you on every word up there. I feel like the only way to find the perfect school for your child is to start one yourself. Which is a bit sad.

  • Jason Strong

    Sorry for responding to a post from early 2011. I dislike it when people do that, so I apologize.


  • Aria Alpert Adjani

    Don’t let the bastards get you down….a life fucking lesson to remember NO MATTER THE AGE! But, as you wonderfully expressed, it is ingrained in us at too early of an age. Like beauty and youth and confidence and, really, defiance. Gawd damn I wish I had someone to talk to me like you to Ava when I was in the 3rd grade but I spawn from a family of approval seekers and when I lost they, instead, falsely tried to butter me up with “how great I was” blah blah – instead of laying it down with truth. No matter how hard it is to hear – I firmly believe it is the best way forward.

    It’s like yelling at your kids. It’s gonna happen more often then not (or you would like to admit!) but losing your shit and patience is just part of motherhood. The key to it all, in my option, is to talking about it to your kid (why you lost your shit etc) not to justify it (well maybe a little..) To talk about the process of it all and attempt to get them to understand your process and what lead to your voice being raised (this happen therefore that happened and I got frustrated and yelled). Not that your reaction is “right” or “wrong” it’s just what it is.

    The older I get the more I understand this – life IS just a series of processes. You win some you lose some. The gift of them all is to have the courage to embrace them and talk freely about it all. Not only will you feel better but (hopefully) you will save some money on therapy sessions too.(HA!).