April 18, 2013 at 8:45 AM ET
Seth Harding grabs a two-handed rubber sword, adjusts his helmet made with electrician’s tape, and starts to teach. "Try to block her sword with the base of your sword."
“Why aren’t you wearing shoes?” I wonder.
“En garde!” Seth yells. The battle begins. He is bringing light to the Dark Ages.
At 7, when many kids figure they might be firemen, Seth announced he would be a military archeologist. His mom, Mona Lisa, encouraged that curiosity. "Wow! That kid was into this!" she marvels.
By 12, Seth was hanging out with students nearly twice his age, studying the Middle Ages at Faulkner University, near his home in Montgomery, Alabama. "How's he doing?" I ask assistant professor Grover Plunkett.
"He's got the highest average in the class."
Seth was motivated by his brother Keith's success. Keith is just down the hall, studying finite mathematics, a college senior -- at 14.
"It makes you wonder,” their friend Wesley Jimmerson says, shaking his head. "Are they advanced, or are we just really behind?"
Sister Hannah was the first of the Harding kids to take college entrance exams -- at age 12. "I didn't expect to pass,” she says, “so I started crying, because I was thinking, 'Now what?'"
By 22 she was designing spacecraft. She holds master's degrees in math and mechanical engineering.
Ten-year-old Katrinnah Harding hopes to enter college next year. Her brother Heath started at age 11. He's finishing his master's in computer science -- at 17.
"If they're going to be working at my kitchen table,” Mona Lisa says with a smile, “why not earn college credit for what they're doing?"
Named after her mother’s favorite song, Mona Lisa Harding home-schools her children in the basics, but found that her kids learned more quickly (and got less bored) when they were allowed to study deeply -- something they loved.
"I don't have any brilliant children,” she contends. “I'm not brilliant. My husband's not brilliant. We're just average folks.” Who inspired six children to enter college before they became teenagers.
Kip, their dad, didn't take his own advice. He graduated from college at 25, while flying helicopters in the military. Mona Lisa studied to be a nurse before staying home to teach her kids. They were high school sweethearts who shared a passion for learning.
"The expectation is that you're going to have a fun day,” Kip says, watching his children play. "Not that you're going to come home with A's."
Each Harding has a different passion. Keith loves music. Rosannah became an architect -- at 18. And Thunder James? Well, what’s in a name? The 3-year-old careens down the hall, scattering his brothers and sisters, driving a little electric car.
I can understand maybe convincing one or two children to enter college early, but Mona Lisa has more kids than Mother Hubbard: 10.
She shrugs. "By the time you get down to number five, number six, they just think learning seems normal. We find out what their passions are, what they really like to study, and we accelerate them gradually."
But what happens to their childhood?
"We didn’t limit their experience," Mona Lisa says. "They’re taking college classes, but socially, they are just teenagers." Who live at home, not in college dorms.
"We don't drop them off at school, 16 credit hours first semester, 'bye, I'll see you,'" Kip says. These are not itty-bitty adults. They play with kids their own age, but they don’t wait until they're older to figure out what they love in life.
Are the parents pushing their kids too hard, too fast?
"All our children would have to tells us is, 'You know, this isn't fun any more," Mona Lisa says, "and we'd do something about that."
This is what their daughter, Serennah, tells them: "I hope to love you back very well with what I do with my life."
Like her dad, Serennah chose the military. She's about to become a Navy doctor at age 22 -- one of the youngest physicians in American history.
To contact the subjects of this American Story, email Mona Lisa and Kip Harding firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information about Bob Dotson’s new book “American Story:A Lifetime Search for Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things,” click here.
Fordetails about personal appearance and book signings byBob Dotson, click here.