Field of Science

Book Review: "Don't Tell Me I Can't: An Ambitious Homeschooler's Journey", by Cole Summers (Kevin Cooper)

I finished this book with a profound sense of loss combined with an inspired feeling of admiration for what young people can do. Cole Summers grew up in the Great Basin Desert region of Nevada and Utah with a father who had tragically become confined to a wheelchair after an accident in military training. His parents were poor but they wanted Cole to become an independent thinker and doer. Right from when he was a kid, they never said "No" to him and let him try out everything that he wanted to. When four-year-old Cole wanted to plant and grow a garden, they let him, undeterred by the minor cuts and injuries on the way.

Partly because of financial reasons and partly because there were no good schools available in their part of town, Cole's parents decided to homeschool him. But homeschooling for Cole happened on his terms. When they saw him watching Warren Buffet, Charlie Munger and Bill Gates videos on investing and business, they told him it was ok to learn practical skills by watching YouTube videos instead of reading school books. Cole talks about many lessons he learnt from Munger and Buffet about patience and common mistakes in investing. When other kids were reciting the names of planets, Cole was reading company balance sheets and learning how to write off payroll expenses as tax deductions through clever investing.

This amazing kid had, by the age of fourteen, started two businesses - one raising rabbits and one farming. He parlayed his income into buying a beat up house and a sophisticated John Deere tractor. He fixed up the house from scratch, learning everything about roofing, flooring, cabinet installation and other important aspects of construction from YouTube videos and from some local experts. He learnt, sometimes through hard experience, how to operate a tractor and farm his own land. He made a deep study of the Great Basin desert water table which is dropping a few feet every year and came up with a novel and detailed proposal to prevent water levels from declining by planting low-water plants. He came up with solutions to fix the supply chain problems with timber and farm equipment.

A week or two ago, Cole and his brother were kayaking and horsing around in a local reservoir when Cold drowned and died. He leaves behind a profound sense of loss at an incredible life snuffed out too young and some deep wisdom that most of us who have lived our entire lives still don't appreciate.

The main lesson in the book that Cole wants to leave us with is to let kids do what they want, not tell them they can't do things and give them the freedom to explore and spend leisurely time learning things in an unconventional manner. He rightly says that we have structured parenting in a such a way that every minute of a kid's day is oversubscribed. He is also right that many modern parents err on the side of caution.

It was certainly not the way my parents let me use my time when I was growing up, and I was free to explore the local hills looking for insects and libraries reading books and do dangerous experiment in my home lab from an early age; there is little doubt that this relaxed style of parenting on my parents' part significantly contributed to who I am.

I strongly believe that if you let kids do what they want (within some limits, of course), not only will they turn out ok but they will do something special. Cole Summers seems to me to be the epitome of this ideal. May we all, parents and kids, learn from his extraordinary example and memory.