Underrated career tools: Reddit, rants, and letters to your mom

My son supposedly writes a story every day. We didn’t start this way. We started when he was supposed to write essays to practice for the European AP history test and instead, he wrote essays about how the topic is inherently racist and imperialist and we probably need another French Revolution.

“This will get a very bad score. Save it for a creative writing class,” I told him.

Now we do creative writing.

I told him he can’t just rant.

He told me, “You always tell your writing class there are no rules.”

I give him Howl by Alan Ginsberg and say, “If your rant is this good then you can just rant.” And later, more rules: “No meandering pages that have no point. Readers like stories.”

His stories became more and more about violin and Spanish. That progress is slow or it’s useless. Or that the only thing he’ll ever do in life is violin and Spanish. Or that he’s terrible. Or that I’m terrible. I could have said, the world doesn’t want to read a teenager’s missives to his mom. But we were both learning so much about how he feels that I let him keep writing that way.

And slowly the stories about walking for an hour so he didn’t have to hear me yell turned into walking for an hour and seeing a woman he knew from his volunteer work and sitting down with her on a park bench, next to her very full shopping cart of belongings, and talking to her.

We were getting somewhere. But then college applications were due. So he reverted to writing about imposter syndrome, and shame, and working so hard only to feel like he has no control.

I could barely reply to these pieces because I have to work hard to not feel all those same things. Homeschooling is also hard work for a parent. It’s hard to do everything so carefully and not feel personally responsible for the application process going well for the kid.

Then I found r/ApplyingToCollege. I read it furtively as an adult interloper. The kids express their anxieties in such relatable ways.

My friend got into our first choice and I didn’t. How can I get over being sad for myself?

The replies are perfect. Sometimes, Kill her. But often, I’m sad too. I would like to go to college with all these kids.

Today my son couldn’t work on applications. He was too anxious. So I sent him to r/ApplyingToCollege. He is smiling for the first time in days. I forget how important it is to feel part of a community when you are doing something difficult.

Homeschooled kids often face hurdles alone. I mostly think this is good – at least preferable to facing hurdles in school where it’s more like hoops you jump through for teachers. I want my kids to be able to set their own goals and decide for themselves if they did a good job. But the inherent loneliness of a self-directed life is too much.

If your kid doesn’t feel alone in their studies then they are probably doing someone else’s curriculum and only learning to jump through hoops. If your kid is worried and uncertain then they are learning what it’s like to be engaged at a deeper level and risk going down a wrong path. Which is what adult life is.

Those kids need support, just like those adults do. And I really believe Reddit provides that. Most subreddits I read are people trying to make sense of their world. It’s easy to find people trying to do what you’re trying to do.

And this applies to grownups as much as kids. if you can’t find a subreddit that relates to your interest, then it’s a wakeup call for everyone: you don’t have an interest that’s important enough to care about the conversation around it.

So I guess Reddit is a parenting tool to help your kid to feel supported. But it’s also a life test: are you pushing hard enough to specialize? We don’t have a choice in life — we have to do that. We can learn when we’re young, and it’s safe to make mistakes, or we can wait until we’re old, and it’s terrifying.


15 replies
  1. harris497
    harris497 says:

    You wrote, ” the inherent loneliness of a self-directed life is too much.” but I do not agree that this outcome is inevitable.
    I feel that the only truly fulfilling life is one that is in some way self-directed; but, in order to realize that fulfillment, one often has to deal with self-doubt about one’s intended path, or one’s ability to actualize along the way. I feel that the process of overcoming the period of self-doubt, is where true growth occurs. This growth makes it all worthwhile.
    Some people come out the other side faster than others, but some never emerge. Life isn’t fair but the access to a life guide, a coach, (real or adopted from the published cognoscenti) and the willingness to listen and process honestly helps immensely. I’m still in limbo and at the beginning of my journey. It is hard to stop doubting, and perhaps I never truly will. But the alternative is unpalatable, it is the equivalent of giving up. Then we really do die before we take our last breath.

  2. marta
    marta says:

    Reading your post..I feel so sad for your son..I read you from Spain. Like in other countries in Europe, homeschooling is forbidden. Looking for support in Internet sounds terrible.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Maybe it’s generational, but almost all the kids in the group online went to school each day.So I think most kids find sources of support online.

      But also, you can’t always get support from the people you are closest to. Sometimes it’s nice to talk with people who don’t have a whole history with you. I see that so often when I do coaching sessions with people. People are often surprised by how free and open they are on our phone call. But I am not surprised — it’s a relief to be able to talk to someone outside your regular support system.


  3. Morning Upgrade
    Morning Upgrade says:

    I love how honest this article is. Too often, especially in times like this year, we forget that our kids are still kids. They don’t have decades of experience under their belt. They don’t necessarily know the right way to articulate their feelings. Sometimes they don’t even know how to reach into their soul to find those feelings they want to articulate about. It’s okay for our kids to struggle, to fail, to fall. But our job is to be there to pick them up. Sometimes their friends will do it, sometimes Reddit or social media or some celebrity you’ve never heard of will. But if someone is picking up our kids, teaching them, and helping them find that inner strength we so desperately want them to have? Then it’s been a successful day for them, and for us. –Ryan

  4. Lía
    Lía says:

    Hi Penelope, I purchased the discounted coaching session. When do we hear from you and what is the process for scheduling the session? Thank you!

  5. thatgirl
    thatgirl says:

    Totally agree that one can find community vis subreddits for just about any reason whatsoever. Granted, you may find some participating in them who show up just to be obstinate, but as long as you (or your progeny) can filter fir that, the world can feel smaller and friendlier indeed.

    Perhaps your son can talk about his motivations/reasons for applying more readily than writing them down. That’s pretty common for someone for whom performance (music and otherwise), so perhaps he can shake some building blocks loose by recording himself talking about them. Perhaps he can submit an audio or video essay to the right school.

    Are you still offering the discounted coaching? I missed the last one, and the timing is so incredibly key for me. I’m sorry to only be asking now, but I’ve been away from Gotham since last March on rather unfortunate family business, bad m only now reading this post. You helped me once my correcting my mistaken impression of my personality type. I hope to re-engage what prompted that, because I’ve cleared some great obstacles of late that make the timing ideal.

    Thanks so much, P!

  6. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    I have a friend who grades AP tests, and these are the types of essays she says do best (saying European history is inherently racist) — the ones that think outside of the box and say something new.

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “Those kids need support, just like those adults do. And I really believe Reddit provides that. Most subreddits I read are people trying to make sense of their world. It’s easy to find people trying to do what you’re trying to do.
    And this applies to grownups as much as kids. if you can’t find a subreddit that relates to your interest, then it’s a wakeup call for everyone: you don’t have an interest that’s important enough to care about the conversation around it”

    When I initially read the above, I knew it to be true. I just didn’t know how true and to what extent. There are all kinds of people in the last two days commenting about Reddit (specifically the subreddit group Wall Street Bets) and the impact the members of that group had on some big hedge funds that were short selling on firms like GameStop, AMC, and BlackBerry. I have visited the social media platform Reddit only occasionally. Maybe I need to visit it more. :) Penelope, I know you are an expert on building communities and know how to use them to your benefit and to the benefit of those people who belong to the community. What happened in the community above took just about everybody by surprise from economic to political pundits including the hedge funds themselves. It’s interesting to me to hear the different analyses. Some are spot on while others babble and sound like idiots. It’s incidences like this one that allows me to listen and decide for myself who truly are the experts and those who are honest about the extent of their knowledge.

  8. Jeanne
    Jeanne says:

    I am reading your blog for the first time and can’t help but say, Wow you write well! I blog as well but I don’t think I do it like this! Anyway kudos. And it sounds like you’re doing right by your son. What I overheard of my niece applying to colleges makes me think it is 10X as hard as when we applied.

    • Peter Varhol
      Peter Varhol says:

      Go back and read her 9/11 missive. Penelope gets a lifetime pass from me because she survived and wrote honestly about being next to the Towers when they came down.

  9. Peter Varhol
    Peter Varhol says:

    1. Your son may be right about European history. I have found that history is a lot more complex than most of us realize (https://pvarhol.wordpress.com/2021/05/03/education-should-make-us-uncomfortable/).

    2. I have a story. Neither of my parents graduated high school. We never left the local area in my entire youth. They were decent people, but had no perspective on the world beyond a few miles. I could not have had conversations with them such as you have with your sons. I hope you treasure those conversations with him, as frustrating as they may be at times. And I hope that you broaden his perspective on life, not by telling him how to think, but by pointing out contradictions in everyone’s point of view.

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