Why kids should specialize

Kids suffer long-term from schoolwork that doesn’t interest them argues career advice blogger Penelope Trunk, who’s started homeschooling her children.

When people ask me why my kids aren’t learning math, I ask them why their kids aren’t learning an instrument. Or why they aren’t learning a language. Because math, music, and language all develop the brain in similar ways. They are all good for a similar type of learning. But the question that assumes that math is the one right way to develop that part of the brain betrays the assumption that traditional school knows best.

Traditional schools want students to learn a little bit of everything, Trunk writes. But the world rewards specialists.

For ten years I have been writing about how important specializing is for your career. Specialization is essential, really, to to staying employable throughout your adult life. But I have recently been blown away by how clear the research is that kids should specialize as well.

Which means that you either need to make your kid great at the test-taking game, or you need to find something else for the kid to be great at.

What if your children are good at various things but not really great at anything? What if your five-year-old wants to specialize in TV watching or dolls or dinosaurs and no interest in math or music or language?
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  1. Thankfully, parents can instantly figure out what field a child will want to do as an adult based upon their interests at 5 years old.

    It amazes me how many “adults” at 18 can’t figure out what field they want to pursue. How does tailoring an education in such a way that it closes a multitude of doors help most children?

    Now, for some children, this would make sense, but I highly doubt it is a significant percentage of the population.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      While prematurely eliminating subjects could be a danger, another danger is the mediocre, passionless generalist. My experience as a homeschooler who not surprisingly socializes with many other homeschoolers is that children really benefit when a parent picks two or three “specialties” (music, art, math, whatever) and places extra focus to them. Sometimes these are child lead; sometimes these are parent initiated – I’m thinking of many parents in my circle who arrange very early music lessons. Being good, really good, at something – anything, seems to have a lasting positive benefit. Just my opinion.

      I didn’t trust my own kids to pick their specialties; I picked them initially (math, guitar and swimming for my oldest, art and history for my younger). But, I did take my cues from them and gently insisted they persist when they may have set them aside. That persistency has paid off for them. They both now as teens have long term passions related to those early focuses. Parents whether homeschooling or not obviously influence and direct this process. The problem arises when parents can’t or won’t influence in this way kids are left to the influences of peers and a pretty indifferent public school system.

  2. “What if your children are good at various things but not really great at anything? What if your five-year-old wants to specialize in TV watching or dolls or dinosaurs and no interest in math or music or language?”

    That is a very good point. Or what if they just want to do music, aren’t quite good enough to go pro, and aren’t interested in math?

    At some point, you as a parent just have to throw a bunch of stuff at the kid that you think is worthwhile and see what sticks.

  3. “How does tailoring an education in such a way that it closes a multitude of doors help most children?”


    I’m particularly wary of music as a focus, because so many young adults find (late in the game) that 1) they aren’t good enough or 2) that they’ve had a career-ending injury (perhaps, ironically due to over-practice). It’s just as bad as aiming at pro sports. There needs to be a plan B. And a Plan C, D, E, etc.

  4. We love that homeschooling has allowed our kids to focus on things that they’re good at, but that doesn’t preclude them learning about other subjects. For a few unpopular but necessary areas (for one of my kids, handwriting) I either set a time limit and ‘see how much we can do well’ or I set an assignment that I know doesn’t take too long and tell them to work until its done. The like to learn and we’re flexible, spending extra time on subjects that they find particularly interesting, but doing 30ish minutes/day of work that they don’t like won’t hurt them. My kids are early elementary school and preschool age, so I’m guessing that they amount of time they spend on ‘unfavorite’ work will increase with age. If we finish our main academic work in the morning, they have all afternoon to explore their interests.

  5. The main flaw in the argument that “math, music, and language all develop the brain in the same way” is that you don’t teach kids math to develop their brain, you teach them math so that they will know math.

    • Obi-Wandreas says:

      Exactly. The purpose of primary school is to develop those core competencies that all citizens require. You can specialize later, but to specialize to the point of ignorance of anything outside a narrow focus is sheer idiocy.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        “The purpose of primary school is to develop those core competencies that all citizens require.”

        It would be wonderful in practice if that actual was the goal and priority. It is the piety but not the reality. All our elementary aged kids would be literate, numerate and possess a modest amount of self-discipline; they’re not and they don’t.

  6. Mark Roulo says:

    A reasonable alternative is to raise kids to be competent generalists with one or more specializations. This property makes for interesting people in general.

    So, you don’t drop math in 6th grade (or whatever), but you do pick one or two fields to explore deeply (astronomy, dinosaurs, math, ballet, painting, whatever).

  7. The luxury of homeschooling my own children , while studying to be a teacher in both progressive and traditional ways have given me the insight that children usually do not know what they want until they are in the late elementary or early middle school years. This is a generalization, but it is an important one because we do not want parents deciding that if their one year old picks up a paint brush more than a few times, they will forgo everything else and start trying to raise Picasso. I think children should be left to their own devices, yes, and if they develop a love of or talent for something then they should be allowed to pursue that and “specialize”. At the same time, math and language and music and literature and writing and science and (you get my point) are important as well. I do not know if it is good advice to specialize too early.

    In my own home, I push Spanish. We live in California, that is why. My first grader learned all her other standards this year and we had time to spare, so she was able to “specialize” in the things she has shown early interest in, animals and art. It was special, and above and beyond what she needs to understand as a first grader. On the other hand, every child does not need calculus or biochemistry to be successful in life.

    Bottom line: if the parent’s are in tune and involved with their children, whether homeschooling, un-schooling, or doing traditional schooling, they will be able to help their child flourish and accomplish anything they want.

  8. SuperSub says:

    Well, personally I think that a math specialist who can’t read will not do well in life….or a violinist that can’t convert a dollar to quarters.
    So many of the “specialist” fields are actually highly interdisciplinary. Most specialists specialize in topics and not overall content areas…for example, an archaeologist who specializes in ancient Egypt will know the history, language, architecture, geography, and science of that time.
    Very few careers expect laser-like focus that would allow you to completely eliminate a whole content area such as math, and those that do are so competitive that the chances of succeeding in them are very small.

  9. Cranberry says:

    Brain development is not education’s aim. A student may be multi-lingual, but innumerate. If you choose not to teach your child math, your child won’t learn math. The brain may be beautifully developed, but really, who can tell?

    Sprinters and gymnasts both develop muscular legs. A sprinter can’t become a gymnast easily. It’s not the development of the body part which makes a difference, it’s what you can do with it.

    You also need a great deal of general knowledge before you can specialize.

  10. Greifer says:

    Penelope Trunk gets mileage out of being provocative. she’s bright, verbally gifted, and outrageously judgmental.

    Paying even 5 minutes´ attention to her self-reported personal life should convince you that generally, if you should happen upon her advice, you should then do the opposite.

    • Cranberry says:

      I quite agree. Unfortunately, her pieces get picked up by other publications. It’s sort of a public service to point out nonsense.

      There is also a tendency of some modern parents to encourage children to over-specialize–playing only ice hockey from the age of 8, for example, or one instrument, a la Amy Chua’s children.

      So, she’s trying to provoke interest, but she’s more mainstream than she thinks.

      • I think it’s important to distinguish between those kids who are “playing only ice hockey from the age of 8” because the parents are pushing them and those kids who are doing it because it’s their passion. As a veteran of 20+ years of elite soccer and swimming, my experience has been that those kids who are not personally dedicated will drop out, usually as soon as the schedule gets tough. Those who stick with it are there because they want to be. It’s easy when the kids want to do one activity only; the hard part is when they love two and there is enough schedule conflict that they must choose which one they will do at an elite level and which one they will either drop or drop to a lower level.

  11. I think the level at which one begins to specialize academically is important. ES and MS should (usually) be dedicated to establishing a solid foundation across all of the disciplines, not to specializing. The exception I would make is for acceleration of interested and able kids. This seems to be done mostly in math, as is done in math magnet middle schools. The ones about which I have some knowledge prepare kids to enter HS, often a math/science magnet, at algebra II level or better. Acceleration need not be limited to magnet programs, however.

    By HS, kids should be encouraged to specialize, as was the norm, into various vo-tech options, general ed or college prep. Not everyone has the same interests or the same abilities and pretending otherwise is ridiculous and possibly fraudulent (if the ed world acknowledged the concept).

  12. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Trunk seems to think of education as a means to an end–you specialize early because it fits with your career goals. So, a St. John’s College, or even the U of C with its fairly string core requirements, would be out, because the lack of specialization will keep you from your goals.

    That may work for people who think like Trunk thinks– but if you’re more of a web thinker than a linear thinker, the broader education helps you see connections, find patterns and build links. Her post reminds me of the Asimov story, where people are ‘programmed’ with the knowledge they need from a young age….. They get really, really good at one thing, but can also become obsolete.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Also, watching the gymnastics finals last night, I wondered what a girl does when she’s trained for the Olympics since she was three, and then doesn’t make the Olympics. Even the kids who do make the Olympics are an interesting case study— what does a washed up gymnast due when she can’t do gymnastics anymore? I googled Mary Lou Retton (my childhood hero) and she apparently spent her life as a motivational speaker and weight loss coach.

      That’s not what I want for my kids. Better to be a generalist, and to always have Aristotle to fall back on!

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Specialization doesn’t in most cases mean Olympic athletes or Julliard musicans. It simply means more focus, not hyper focus. Many families do this naturally. They are science and math minded, fine arts focused, or into the the financial markets. It relates to the professions or special interests of the parents that the children may grow to share. It doesn’t mean that core academics are completely set aside; it does mean that subjects that maybe required in a public school setting are replaced or de-emphasized while more time is spent elsewhere.

        • Deirdre Mundy says:

          That doesn’t seem to be what Trunk is advocating for, though, since she claims her kids aren’t learning math. I’m all for picking one or two activities to focus on in your leisure time, but that doesn’t mean you get to avoid the activities you DON’T like.

          Otherwise, I could spend all my time commenting on blogs, and never do a chore in my life!

          I do think homeschooling provides a good opportunity for more focus. Since less time is taken up with administrative details, the kids have time to learn the basics AND go deeper where they want to.

          • Deirdre Mundy says:

            But Trunk’s take is not the sane take. Which isn’t surprising, since, as a blogger, she rarely has the sane take on anything. I much prefer Susanna Breslin over at Forbes for career blogging, and the Pioneer Woman for homeschool farm blogging. Trunk tries to do both, and succeeds at neither…hey, maybe she should specialize more! 😉

      • One of my community college teacher relatives had a student in exactly the situation Deirdre mentions (washed up at 14 because she wasn’t quite good enough). She’d been “homeschooled” as a young athlete and missed out on her math, with predictable disastrous results for her number sense. It’s really a pain to try to acquire elementary level math as a young adult.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          It maybe a pain, but for a 14 year old of average intelligence or better, it’s probably no tragedy. Give her two years and good instruction and she’ll be adequately “caught up”.

          • I’m not sure about her age now, but being in CC, she was probably at least in her early 20s before she wound up in my relative’s remedial math class. I don’t know about tragedy, but it is pretty bad. Even if she’d gone back to high school at 14, just think of the class and the peer group she’d wind up with with practically no math skills at all. Sure, private tutoring might bring her along pretty fast if all went well, but if her family had the sense to do that, they would have done it years ago.

            Parents really need to think twice before putting all their kids’ eggs in the same vocational basket.

  13. NASA holds a conference every year for Science teachers; if you ever get the chance to go it is awesome and NASA treats you like royalty.

    One thing the engineers have repeatedly told us is to tell kids to work hard on their writing skills as well as their Math and Science. In their words, all the Math and Science in the world won’t help us if you can’t explain it to others.

    BTW, when I was a kid I wanted to be a firefighter, a fighter pilot, and a train engineer. Good thing my education wasn’t custom made for just one of those careers.