Harding family, kids started college at age 12

Top from left, Hannah (25), Heath (17), Seth (12), Rosannah (23). Bottom from left, Keith (14), Katrinnah (10), Mariannah (8), Mona Lisa holding Thunder (3), Kip, Lorennah (5), Serennah (22). (Photo: Mona Lisa Harding)

Mona Lisa and Kip Harding of Montgomery, Ala., have reason to be proud of their 10 children. Their oldest daughter, Hannah, 25, is getting her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. Rosannah, 23, is an architect. Serennah is a doctor. Heath just finished his master’s degree in computer science. Keith is a senior and history major at Faulkner University. Seth is a sophomore at Huntington College, also majoring in history. Katrinnah is finishing up high school and preparing to take the ACT for college. And the youngest kids, 8-year-old Mariannah, 5-year-old Lorennah, and 3-year-old Thunder, are all excelling academically under Mona Lisa’s careful instruction at home.

For any parent, this is an impressive accomplishment. But for the Hardings, it’s doubly so. That’s because Hannah started college at 12, got her bachelor’s degree in math from Auburn University at 17 and earned two master’s degrees (one in math and one in mechanical engineering) by age 22 before returning to earn her Ph.D. Rosannah also started college at 12 and is the youngest licensed architect in the AIA (American Institute of Architects). Serennah is the youngest female doctor in the U.S. at 22 and is serving in the Navy at the Walter Reed Medical Center. Heath with the master’s degree is 17. College senior Keith is 14. Seth, the college sophomore, is 12. And entering freshman, Katrinnah, is 10.

Astonishing, yes, but Mona Lisa, who has home-schooled all her children, insists none is an Einstein. “It’s not likely that all these kids are geniuses,” she says. “We just feel it’s the environment of home schooling. We let them tell us what they’re interested in so their motivation level is very high, and they also see their older siblings succeed. I guess you could call it child-led learning. I think any child who has the same supportive environment could do this.”

'If they seem ready, then they’re ready'

Whether you agree that any kid is capable of such jaw-dropping academic achievement, the Hardings’ consistent success is hard to ignore. And it begs the question: Is our public school system, which groups kids together by age regardless of their individual abilities or readiness to advance, holding them back? In other words, if we didn’t impose artificial limitations and tell kids they have to wait to take calculus or advanced biology — if we just got out of their way — would most be ready to tackle harder subjects much earlier?

Mona Lisa and Kip, who incidentally weren’t home-schooled and met in a public high school chemistry class, didn’t set out to blaze educational trails. They just started listening to their kids, letting each one move forward — no matter what their age — in subjects that interested them. “We aren’t really worrying so much about their age,” says Mona Lisa. “If they seem ready, then they’re ready.”

To round out their education and meet college requirements, the Hardings add in general subjects along the way. Says Kip, who is retired from the military and works as a budget analyst for FEMA, “With school, it’s like a pyramid: It’s broad at the bottom where you’re studying many subjects, and when you get your college degree you’re at the narrow point on top with your specialty. Well, we flipped that whole thing on its head. We find out what the child likes first and then we broaden as we go.”

Still act their age

In fact, the couple’s upside-down pyramid approach has been so successful they’ve written an e-book called "College by Twelve" and also offer phone consultations for others interested in trying out their methods.

Another bonus of the Harding approach: less homework and more free time for play and family. The Harding kids not only don’t sit in a classroom all day, but they also don’t have the mountains of homework that burdens most public school kids. In fact, on many days, the Harding bunch is done by 1 or 2 in the afternoon and can devote the rest of the day to just being kids. Which means running around the backyard, playing with friends, participating in local sports, attending church youth group, and, yes, even bickering in the back seat of the car.

That goes for the ones in college, too. They may be on par with their college-age peers in class, but outside the classroom they act their age. Mona Lisa and Kip keep dorm living and fraternity parties strictly off-limits. “College is just where they go for their academics,” says Mona Lisa.

Adds Kip, “There are different ways of doing things in life, and for us this is working really, really well. We just want to encourage people to think outside the box and look at education in a little different way.”

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