Monday, 6 September 2010

Hothousing children at home

First, a real treat for readers! A chance to see and hear both me and my daughter talking about home education. Check out this bit from a BBC programme about home education which aired in February this year:

A few days ago, somebody commenting here drew attention to the supposed similarity between the present writer and Harry Lawrence, the famous home educating father of Ruth Lawrence. This was a fair point. There are indeed uncanny similarities between the various slightly eccentric fathers who appear on television or in newspapers from time to time to boast of their achievements and those of their offspring in the home educating line. Most of these men are what are known as 'hothousers'; which is to say that they work intensively with their children to stimulate their intellectual development in advance of their chronological age. The expression 'hothousing' is sometimes used pejoratively by autonomously educating parents to describe this kind of very structured home education.

The tradition of hothousing fathers is a very old one. A while ago I mentioned John Stuart Mill, taught at home by his father. Since the end of World War II there have been a number of high profile cases of this sort of thing. Edith Stern was taught at home in New York by her father from her birth in the early 1950s. Her progress was astonishing. By the age of two she could read fluently, she could play chess at four and at fifteen she became the youngest professor of mathematics in American history. On the face of it at least. a home education success story. Ruth Lawrence was taught at home by her father, graduating from Oxford University with a First at the age of thirteen. Judit Polgar, the chess champion is another case and of course there is the more recent example of Sufiah Yusof, who was taught at home by her father and entered Oxford University at the age of thirteen.

The above four are cases which were extensively covered by the media, but there are many more which are less well known. All seem to have points in common though. To begin with, there do not seem to be any female hothousers. All the cases of which I have ever heard have involved fathers rather than mothers. Secondly, it is usually daughters who are being pushed in this way. Thirdly, although these father-daughter combinations seem to have extremely close relationships when the child is young, this often seems to sour once the girl gets a little older. Ruth Lawrence, who moved to America and lived with her father until she was in her late twenties, went on to marry a man almost thirty years older than her, about her father's age in fact! The story is that she is now estranged from her father. Finally of course, there is the mysterious case of the missing mothers. My wife would look at pictures and films of such cases as these and ask, 'What's missing from this picture, children?' The answer is of course, the child's mother.

Now men can be pretty weird about their interests in a way that most women are not. I know quite a few men with obsessive interests in the American Civil War, steam trains and various other strange things. They have hundreds of books on their chosen subject and go on holidays to the USA or North of England so that they can visit battlefields of ride in steam trains. One seldom sees this in women. This I think explains part of the hothousing phenomenon; the fact that men become absolutely preoccupied with some project and pursue it singlemindedly to the exclusion of all else. There is of course a theory which holds that autism is simply an extreme and pathological form of maleness and I can easily believe it. Watch a man with an obsessive hobby and you can see traces of the type of single minded interest that one sees in some autistic people. I suspect that having once begun the task of educating their daughter, for some men it becomes an end in itself, just like the man who wishes to know everything about the history of railway signal boxes or the names of every soldier at the Battle of Gettysburg. It is just how certain men are.

Looked at from this perspective, it is fairly plain where the women in the case are. They are getting on with life like every wife of a man with an all-consuming hobby. They can probably see the benefits to their child, but do not particularly get caught up in the wild enthusiasm of the scheme. They certainly do not wish to appear on television or in the newspapers as mad home educators! Readers might at this point be asking themselves where my own wife was during the filming of the television clip which I posted above. The answer is that she retreated to the bedroom with a novel and told me that if I attempted to get her in front of the cameras she would behave so oddly that I would regret it for the rest of my life. Enough said, especially if one knows my wife, who always carries through with her threats. I dare say that it was a similar situation with all the other invisible mothers.

It has to be said that the long term outcome for these hothoused children is a bit variable. Ruth Lawrence seems happy enough living in Israel, although as I said there is a coolness between her and her father. Sufiah Yusof of course ended up not only estranged from her father, but also working as a prostitute. Edith Stern too fell out with her father when she became an adult. I think that it is worth looking at these individuals because, as I pointed out recently, it is these children whom the public sees as typical examples of home education. Since their fathers often present as being more than a little a little strange, this might well have the effect of teaching non-home educators subconsciously that home educators tend to be peculiar. It might also explain why I was invited to give evidence to the select committee, rather than a woman. Perhaps the effect of these high profile home educating families has been subliminally to persuade non-home educators that the typical, dedicated home educating parent is a father rather than a mother?


  1. those medals your daughter won where for a very weak girls section at chess know as the mickey mouse events! why has your daughter not got a FIDE chess grade? why did she give up and not move up to play real chess against adults? i can find no record of the grade she reached before giving up? A lot of those mickey mouse events for chess are not graded!

  2. Anonymous' comment above has, perhaps, illustrated another aspect of hothousing. It's something of a competition, isn't it? Women aren't immune to being competitive when it comes to their children's achievements but perhaps men tend to be more extreme in that?

    I think that the most important thing to remember, however, is that these cases are a tiny number. They have nothing to do with the lives of the vast majority of home educators. It isn't exactly newsworthy that most home educated children are pottering along learning happily - but it is true. Sadly, when you're a minority, the media will often define you by extreme cases that pander to their prejudices.

  3. Allie says-It's something of a competition, isn't it? Women aren't immune to being competitive when it comes to their children's achievements but perhaps men tend to be more extreme in that?

    I was just pointing out that simons daughter had won chess medal for a very very weak section! and never got a english chess grade nor is they any record of her playing chess against adults. everyone in the chess world know that the chess challenge tournments for juniors run by M. Basman are very weak! some call them mickey mouse events! but of course the reporter never knew that and webb never told him did you webb?

  4. Peter, it's only a game!

    not at Peter level it is not just a game Peter has played for england and plays for a very strong adult team in the 1st team! this year his team won both cups and in Peter team are grandmaster who would strongly object to it just being call a game! i belive thats what the LA think its just a game like tiddy winks? Peter has to sit at the chess board for over 5 hours sometimes playing his game!

    Webb daughter was also not the best under 7 in essex i have checked and they are no records of her ever playing a rated chess game! a chess players strength is measured by his/her chess grade Webb daughter had no grade at all which means she never played any rated games under real tournment conditions!
    I can assure you i do know a fair bit about chess playing strength and who is or is not a good chess player and i am afraid Webb daughter was not a good chess player!

  5. I really don't like it when people belittle the achievements of other people's children.

  6. Neither do most of the rest of us Allie, hear, hear.

    Please could we act a little more civilised / respectful and remember that one person's walk in the park is another's achievement?

  7. Allie says - i really don't like it when people belittle the achievements of other people's children.

    Webb claimed his daughter was the best U7 at chess in Essex this claim is untrue as she has never played any rated chess games under tournment conditions! look at it like a GCSE Webb daughter good at passing them and according to Webb you can measure a child by these results will rated chess games are like this and she would have got no pass for chess as for some reason she never played any!

    Webb belittles other peoples children and has never praised Peter for being picked to play chess for England Twice! Peter has a measured chess grading and an internatinal one as well. nor has Webb said what a good job Peter made of helping to stop the children bill!

  8. Yehudi Menuin and Einstein were home educated by their mothers- Jewish mothers !!