As a parent of a 2011 Thiel Fellow, I was excited about attending the closing ceremonies for the group.
This first group of fellows were guinea pigs–quite fortunate guinea pigs–who had forged the program along with the foundation staff. They had been supported financially, skillfully mentored, and emotionally bolstered for two years. Most importantly, they had all learned so much about their own projects, about persistence, and about the business world. Would closing mean losing much of that opportunity for dramatic growth?
Family, friends, foundation representatives, mentors, and current finalists gathered in the Yerba Buena Center Theatre in San Francisco. The room, alive with energy, emotion, and excitement, quieted as Foundation program director and representatives took the stage.
As I sat in the audience, I thought about how I had been in my son’s audience for the last two years, watching from a distance as he grew in leaps and bounds. Onstage the speakers talked about guiding the first Fellows through challenges and about the gifts they’d given each other in the community they created. The Thiel Foundation representative explained that the Fellows were encouraged to continue to participate in this community of support, with Thiel and each other, even though their official fellowship, with the very helpful monthly stipend, was over. The foundation didn’t see this closing as severing ties, he explained, rather it saw it as a transition in their role within the community.
I heaved a parental sigh of relief. Okay, no more money and no degree, but continued access to a network of support and community. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that losing the network was what I feared the most for Dale.
Representatives of the class of 2011 Fellows spoke to express their appreciation for the Thiel Foundation, staff and mentors. Each fellow spoke briefly about his/her journey. I was fascinated by the individual stories. I didn’t expect to need kleenex, but I did.
Next came the questions from the audience. You could hear curiosity and trepidation from the finalists, as well as questions, concern and skepticism from some of the parents and other attendees.
What next? What about? What if? Many were expressions of fear and concerns that there were “no guarantees.”
There are no guarantees.
There are risks, opportunity, choices, and challenges. There is the possibility of growth, success, failure, and learning. And this is true every day of every child’s life. We like to pretend that it isn’t, that getting into the right college, or onto the sport’s team, or into a job means the end of risk, but it doesn’t and more importantly, it shouldn’t. So my questions are for the parents reading here.
Are we brave enough to let our children try something that did not exist when we were our kids age? Can we let go of our fears? Our sense of how life “should” look, what goals are “worth” achieving?
Are we open and trusting enough to support them while they try something new? Difficult? Unknown? Different? Remixed?
Can we navigate this new territory of parenting passionate young adults? Can we help them learn to balance pursuing new experiences and exciting demands on their attention with taking care of themselves?
The world is different for them than it was for us. The choices, costs and opportunities make it seem like a new universe. The speed, intensity and demand on our children’s time and attention barely compares to the demands of our college experience.
The Thiel Fellowship,like other alternative learning experiences that take place in the real world, demand more of our kids than following a neat, well-trodden path. The increased responsibility and access to a high-powered network of mentors speeds up the process of learning and maturing. Suddenly our babies are fending for themselves. And, yes, It is scary.
As parents can we let them go?
Even though we wonder if what they are choosing–usually choosing instead of college–provides the kind of structure yet freedom that will support personal development as well as academic and professional development, can we let them try?
Can we collaborate with rather than control our children? Can we encourage them to define success in a way that includes all aspects of a fulfilling life?
The closing ceremonies ended and I looked around the room abuzz with people making connections, sharing their dreams, giving advice.
I smiled and raised my imaginary glass of bubbly: here’s to the experiment!
Jane Andraka is warm, funny, and down-to-earth mom, who happens to be, according to Forbes magazine, “a genius at raising brilliant kids.” Her sons Luke and Jack have been taking the science and engineering world by storm, while still in their teens. Her younger son Jack developed a break-through, simple test for pancreatic cancer and is the winner of the 2012 Gordon E. Moore Award, the grand prize of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Her son Luke won the 2010 Intel competition, including the “Genius Scholarship,” and the following year, the THINK award given by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to students whose projects benefit their communities. He is currently in college studying engineering and will graduate debt-free.
Jane was a dedicated and dynamic educational force in her children’s schooling, as she explains in her TEDX talk “Hijacking Your Children’s Education.” Jane, an anesthetist, works nights and her husband, an engineer, works days. They both needed to work, but they organized their work lives so that they could have more time with the kids and be available for whatever the kids needed.
I talked to Jane about what she did differently when raising her kids.
Lisa: Your boys are products of public school, with a short stint in private elementary school. Why did you switch from private to public?
Jane: First, we realized that private schools were really like country clubs to keep kids away from people. I think exposing kids to diversity is really important. We have all kinds of people in this world. We are all human and we all make mistakes. Nobody is better than anyone else. Then, when we moved them to public school, we discovered that the private schools in our area were academically way behind the public schools.
Lisa: It is hard to believe that they were ever behind! How did you catch them up?
Jane: Jack moved to public school in 5th grade. He was behind in math so we took him to Kumon (tutoring service) to catch up. Then we found a charter school with a focus on math and science and a program that we felt was especially good for boys. The school incorporated lots of frequent movement along with its concentrated work. I thought that really helped, because boys and girls can be different (in their attention span and need for movement). In high school, the boys supported trying to get more girls involved in science and math because their academic competition teams were stronger when they included both girls and boys.
Lisa: How did you have time for everything?
Jane: (Laughing) What do you mean? Geez, they get out of school around 2; they don’t go to bed until about 10–that’s at least 8 hours to DO something with your kids, to be learning something.
Lisa: How did you decide what to do with that time?
Jane: I asked them what they wanted to learn more about – what they wanted to do with themselves. We liked to tell our boys that problems are really opportunities in disguise. So what problems did they want to solve? And then we helped them as they figured out how they could work on those problems. We would do projects together, but always have the kids take the lead. We would ask them questions. And most importantly, we modeled the process of learning and doing.
Lisa: Why did you keep them in school? Why not take them out and have all day for projects?
Jane: We felt that they could go to school to learn how to deal with other people, different kinds of people, and how to negotiate with their teachers and peers. And they went to learn how to not be disruptive, to sit quietly and pay attention when something is boring, because we all have meetings like that at some time in our life. They can learn how to meet expectations and negotiate about those expectations if needed. Heck, there is a lot they can learn. But school is only, what 6 hours a day? Not every day. The parent still has plenty of time to make a difference.
Lisa: What did you do when you realized your kids were really bright?
Jane: I got on the Internet to look for resources when they were really young! I found the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (http://cty.jhu.edu/) there, and that they did testing and had lots of opportunities. I thought it would be easier for the kids to qualify when they were really young, and if they did, they would have more time to take advantage of the programs, so I had them tested as soon as they were able, which was around 2nd grade.
Lisa: How did they feel about the testing?
Jane: I made sure the kids knew the test was no big deal. There was no drama around it, I just said ‘let’s just take this and find out what we can.’
Lisa: And after they were tested?
Jane: Then I had to slowly educate myself about the opportunities out there. It was great. John Hopkins had summer programs where the kids would have a couple of weeks running around with other kids just like them and that was wonderful for them and me! Plus, there were classes and all kinds of resources like competitions and things the kids could work towards. The Internet is so great–get on there and find the resources you and your kids need. And then get them there.
Lisa: You have a really refreshing and healthy attitude toward competition and working hard. How do you feel about competition?
Jane: I say enjoy the work. Enter the competition, but go there for fun and to learn, not to win. It is so great to meet the other kids and see their projects. You learn more about communicating and get feedback that can help you improve at a competition. But don’t make the mistake of thinking the win and the judging is what is important. It is a one day thing and you have no control over the judge. It’s never good if you let the competition outcome determine whether you feel good about what you have done or yourself. Whether you are competing in science or sports or whatever, do things just because you love them not for the glory.
Lisa: That sounds easy, but actually doing it is hard! I hate competition, personally, how would I make it a healthy experience for my kid?
Jane: First, make sure you, the parent, focus on the joy of the learning and not the prize. Second, do what the child needs, not what you, the parents prefer. And third, look for opportunities that focus on teams, presenting, or feedback with less focus on competition for a child that needs a less stressful environment.
Both our boys reacted differently to competitions: one thrived under the stress of competition; the other, was less stress resistant. So we took different approaches to competition. One boy skipped Advanced Placement classes to have more time to work on projects, while the other took the classes, but approached them as a challenge to ace them with the least amount of energy.
Lisa: How did you find the energy for so many competitions!
Jane: We did one project for many competitions. So you can take the same research and write an essay for an essay competition, or make a video, or, well there’s lots of different ways to share what you have done. And then you are meeting more and different kinds of people and learning how to present your work in different mediums. It’s such a great way to decide what you want to learn and work on.
Lisa: And how did you figure out what projects to do?
Jane: I had the kids tell me what they wanted to do and why. I had them justify the plan they had. I wanted them to think through what they wanted to do and why it made sense. Kids’ brains are different and it makes sense that they should have different approaches. You have to find the right coaches or programs for your kid, whether it’s sports, arts, or academics. Ask yourself how you can help them develop and then Google away. And then show up and support them.
Lisa: What would you like to say to other parents?
Jane: Take personal responsibility! Stop blaming the schools, the teachers, the system, WHATEVER. Stop blaming and you take action. Stop doing only what is convenient. You decided to have kids, so step up. Kids are an inconvenience, that’s the point. You are supposed to do what it takes to help them develop and reach their potential. You, not someone else.
Lisa: Thank you, Jane!
If you would like to read more about the Andraka family and their approach to parenting see:
“I’ve just pulled my teen out of school. Now what? I want to unschool but don’t know what to do.”
First. Breathe. Deeply. And again. You are not alone.
It feels really scary to do something so different from the folks around you. Defying an institution is scary.Actually I was terrified because I was taking my kid out of school but also leaving my career. I too was worried we’d ruin our son’s future.
We didn’t ruin anything and we learned and discovered so much.
The worry was worthless. Having the freedom to learn the way that was right for him and us was priceless. The time gained, during those teen years that fly by before they head out to the world, is a treasure. It is a huge investment in their future. One that will pay off.
Take time to destress, deprogram or what we call deschool before you unschool. Give yourselves some time to recover from the stress and trauma, or whatever feelings or frustrations led you to the place you are now. Try not to worry. You have time.
Here’s a little secret. There is not one right way.
It make take you a little while to find what works, fits and feels right to you and your child. You may have fits and starts. You may have great days or boring days or days where your sure it was a mistake. No worries. You are doing it right. Thats life.
Expect there to be challenges and bumps. We all have them. And the bonus? You get to help each other learn how to deal with things that are hard. How to self-evaluate, how to make decisions, set goals, decide if something is right for you, and how to pick yourself up when something doesn’t work out. Great life lessons.
Learning is a process that happens all the time, mostly out of school. So pat yourself on the back, you have just made a wonderful move to helping your child direct their own learning which is an absolutely fabulous life skill.
You are modeling doing what you think is right even though it is scary. Courage. Living courageously is a wonderful skill to learn. See, you are already unschooling!
Give yourself a minute to realize what a huge blessing this new freedom can be.
Time. You are giving yourselves the gift of time. You have time to see what they want to learn and develop a new relationship as self-directed learners without the pressures of school. You can be learning partners. You can both follow your interests. And when they intersect and you can learn together and from each other, which is golden.
Life skills. Now there is time for learning how you manage living – in a household, in a family, and in the community. There is time for cooking, cleaning, nutrition, talking walks, exploring, playing, reading, art, gardening, going to museums, dreaming, finding cool places to visit or field-trips to take, time to volunteer. There are so many possibilities. And you can delve deep into one area or taste lots of different topics to begin. You have choices. Options.
If all this freedom is just too uncomfortable, like staring at a blank page with writer’s block, and you want more concrete suggestions, that is okay, too.
Here you go: Sign up for my email list and download Reclaim Your Learning Now!
Read it over with your child. Talk to your child. A lot. Ask what they want. Tell them what you are thinking. Be partners in figuring things out. Let them look for resources. Share what you find. Talk to each other. Laugh. Have fun.
They can be short and sweet and run-of-the-mill , or lengthy and full of exotic flavors and fascinating new sights. For me it’s the time together, away from normal daily obligations, that is most important. Everything else is gravy.
We have always prioritized vacations by keeping a tight rein on our daily budget while at home and traveling fairly frugally. We’ve been happy to choose second-hand, hand-me-down, home-made and dirt cheap in order to fund travel. And we have been pretty happy with those choices.
This trip to Thailand has been our most exotic and our least frugal. The vacation started with Dale being able to use points to upgrade us out of the sardine seats. I was like a little kid in a candy shop and totally embarrassed the other Biz class regulars.
From the soft sultry air, ocean a few steps from the veranda, scents of lemongrass and lotus blossoms, sounds of chanting from the Wat across the street, to daily swimming with Thai families and their water buffalos, I felt as if I was in a dream.
My photos don’t do justice to the people sights, flavors and culture of Thailand.
However, I hope they inspire you to plan your next family vacation, wherever it may be.
Where do you hope to go on your next family vacation?