Should you hothouse your children or will it make them unhappy?
And a Book Club update
You will have seen the essay on LessWrong about the way a selection of geniuses were intensively homeschooled. Ian Leslie wrote a semi-rebuttal arguing that children who are raised for brilliance are often unhappy. The sentence that most interested me in Ian’s essay was this:
These biographies have a kind of genius bias; there must be plenty of children who had similar upbringings but didn’t achieve anything and were merely miserable.
I think of it like this—what happened to J.S. Mill’s siblings?
One of them was a promising intellectual who died young. The others left little trace on the world. Mill seems to have been the most free thinking. One brother wrote a dunderheaded letter to Harriet Taylor when she got engaged to Mill asking how it squared with her feminism. One sister married a puritan and lived in a religious sect. It’s hard to tell, but J.S. Mill seems to have been the least happy of the siblings. And he was the one who had the most intensive education, directly from his father, which left him feeling unloved. He then taught the others, to his displeasure. The younger siblings had a nicer time than Mill did but seem to be much less accomplished.
And yet—Mill says his childhood wasn’t so unhappy, or unusual for the time from an emotional point of view. It was normal for people in England to be cold and unemotional, regardless of how well educated their children were. Mill also said that fear has to be part of any education. This all suggests to me that the correct explanation for whether hothousing children makes them unhappy is high variation in how we respond to our environments. What affected Mill so strongly had less of an impact—or a different impact—on his siblings.
In a recent podcast discussion between Matt Clifford, Rohit Krishnan, and Visakan Veerasamy, the question came up of whether Patrick Collison was always going to start Stripe or not. This is an example of the general question, are entrepreneurs inevitable, fixed, genetic, or can they be redirected into more conventional paths depending on the culture they are in?
Let’s say Collison has many of the traits of talent: energy, high levels of general intelligence, deep interest, and so on, not forgetting personality. Presented with Silicon Valley and the internet and the right networks, he is capable of adapting to that niche in a way others are not. But he cannot optimise for everything. It is not certain that he would have adapted as well to other niches. I doubt that all entrepreneurs would have become senior partners in a firm under other conditions. Those who are good at adapting to fire don’t always do as well in the ice.
Hence, individual variation in all things. This is a subject I will have more to say about in my late bloomers book. For now let’s just summarise like this: whatever is bad for one group of people can be acceptable or even beneficial for another. Think of it as nature’s insurance policy to have enough variation in the species to hedge against as many outcomes as possible. This is true of even really bad things.
This makes me think that while lots of people would be unhappy being hothoused—lots wouldn’t. We should look for the right sort of intensive education for every child. No-one could possibly believe that the average child is currently over-educated, albeit they may spend too much time in supervised conditions.
That variation is why Bertrand Russell, another homeschool genius who got depression later, says more than once that he had a happy childhood, despite being hit and yelled at. Virginia Woolf had an ambivalent relationship with her father, not a hateful one. Again and again we see that these children actually weren’t all that unhappy. Mozart wasn’t. Of course, many prodigies are unhappy, but they generally become burnt out, not successful.
I cannot prove this, but I think the further along the distribution you are—regarding talent as a whole, not just IQ—the more likely you are to respond well to the combination of freedom and intensity involved in these sorts of eduction. Hothousing someone without letting them develop with freedom is dangerous. The people discussed in LessWrong did have a lot of freedom. We can have the benefits of this approach without using fear and misery as the main tools of learning.
My children are homeschooled (aged seven and five) and by no means being hothoused. But I make an effort to talk to them about anything and everything. My daughter was interested in graphs so we looked at a neuroscience book together and talked about how charts work. She didn’t understand it all, but that’s how you learn! She did understand enough to want to complete a data module on Khan Academy. They learn maths with card games from MathforLove and not infrequently spend an hour a day on it. They know the key dates of the Second World War and can talk about El Alamein and the Norway debate. If they play copy cat with me I recite scientific ideas and have thus taught them things like “pressure in water acts equally in all directions”. They recently recited to me the square numbers up to ten.
I discuss thought experiments with them like the ship of Theseus. In a cafe recently, I used the Socratic method to get them to explain why a customer can go up and get a napkin or some cutlery, but you can’t just walk in off the street and do that. My daughter worked out that you don’t just buy coffee, you buy permission. We went on to discuss how we all know these social rules even though no-one taught them to us and they are not written down. She also got to grips with why we use money instead of bartering—she worked out that it is more efficient!
I don’t want it to sound like they have an intense childhood. They get way more free time than many children. After the conversation in the cafe, they spent the morning poking sticks in a river and playing in a playground. But I think you can do a lot with children without doing them any harm. As Ian wrote:
One thing I’ve noticed is how comfortable my children and I suspect most children are with learning from materials that they don’t fully understand, and how much I under-estimate their capacity for doing so.
You do not have to choose between brilliance and happiness. Some of the principles from the LessWrong piece can be applied without making your kids miserable.
The first session of the book club will be on April 16th at 19.00 UK time. If that doesn’t work for several people, I will run a follow-up on 19th April at 19.00 UK time.
Subscribers will get a zoom link on here to join the meeting. Sessions will be recorded and I will post the video and my thoughts about the material we discuss to subscribers afterwards. Sessions will be 90 minutes but we can go longer if you want to.
Join the Common Reader Book Club
Several requests have come in to read poetry, so I thought we would start with a session of close reading. We’ll pick two or three poems and go through them in detail, looking at the poetic techniques used and unpicking the meaning line by line. Nominate your choices in the comments or by emailing me.
If there is an appetite for a session on biography in April, we will start with Walton’s Life of Donne, which might pair nicely with reading Donne as our poetry choice.
There has also been a request to read a Dickens novel. So we will read David Copperfield, a very biographical novel, for the May Book Club: sessions on 14th at 19.00 and/or 17th at 19.00 UK time—plenty of time to read the book!
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