Is It Worth It?

Because my inbox has been innundated with nudges to read Caitlyn Flanagan's article on Amy Chua's sensational book about Tiger Moms, I forced myself to stop playing Plants v. Zombies last night and read the damn thing. We of the blogosphere-types dealt with that book a few weeks ago; Tiger Moms are old news. Still, I was curious what Flanagan had to say. 

After much rambling, Flanagan finally got to her point. The competition for the few slots in Ivy League schools that aren't being occupied by movie starlets and legacies is extremely tough, she writes. The only kids who are going to get that fat envelope from Harvard are those who have been driven relentlessly by obsessive parents. Kids who have had a more easy going childhood aren't going there. 

Chua has accepted, in a way that the good mothers will not, that most children today can’t have it both ways: they can’t have a fun, low-stress childhood and also an Ivy League education. She understood early on—as the good mothers are about to learn, when the heartbreaking e-mails and letters from the top colleges go out this month—that life is a series of choices, each with its own rewards and consequences. In a sense, that is the most unpalatable message of her book, the one that has caused all the anguish: it’s an unwelcome reminder (how can we keep forgetting this?) that the world really doesn’t lie before us like a land of dreams. At best—at the very best—it can only offer us choices between two good things, and as we grasp at one, we lose the other forever.

Flanagan said there are trade-offs in life, and it's a bitter pill that uber-successful adults must choke down at some point. 

She's perfectly right, you know. 

Any kid with an IQ over 120 can go to Harvard provided the parents become drill sargents and social engineers. Steve and I long ago decided that it wasn't worth it.

There's not much difference in the outcomes of my friends who went to an Ivy League versus those that went to elite public schools or the not-quite Ivies, like Colgate or Oberlin or Kenyon. Everyone ended up in roughly the same upper middle class suburbs with professional jobs and Subarus in the driveway. Everybody is waiting on the same long lines at Disney and complaining about their long commutes to their ten hour jobs in the city. 

So, if we all end up in the same place, why torture the kids like that? By nature, my kid is a slacker. He is perfectly capable of getting a 100% on every test, but he will work just hard enough to get a 93%. In the end, it's an A, so he'll knock off the studying when he gets to the 93% point and then pick up his DSI. I could get him to care about the difference between an 100% and 93%, but it would involve doing such violence to his personality that it isn't worth it.

We do set rules about the time spent playing video games and bedtime and all those good things that keep him from slipping from 93%'s down to 80%'s. We've started a Sunday afternoon writing club to plug the gaps in his education at his middle school, but I'm not running out and hiring a $100 per hour tutor. Trade-offs have been made. 

Another trade-off has been actively on our minds this winter. Is it worth moving to a more affluent town with higher rated schools? Moving ten minutes away would give both of my boys more opportunities. But there's always a trade-offs in life. This trade off would mean buying a much smaller home that costs about $250,000 more than our current home. It would mean a 30 year mortgage, rather than a 15 year mortgage. It would mean not taking that vacation to Seattle and Vancouver this year. It would mean no vacations at all for many years. It would mean the boys would see less of their dad. Jonah wouldn't be able to go to the fancy camp in July, and Ian wouldn't be able to go to that world-class speech therapist that doesn't take health insurance. 

Is it worth it? Is it worth it? 

74 thoughts on “Is It Worth It?

  1. Anyway, I’m all for keeping the spending on housing to a minimum, laughing harder at Ivy League-educated people when they screw-up, and shorter commutes.

  2. “This trade off would mean buying a much smaller home that costs about $250,000 more than our current home. It would mean a 30 year mortgage, rather than a 15 year mortgage. It would mean not taking that vacation to Seattle and Vancouver this year. It would mean no vacations at all for many years. It would mean the boys would see less of their dad. Jonah wouldn’t be able to go to the fancy camp in July, and Ian wouldn’t be able to go to that world-class speech therapist that doesn’t take health insurance.”
    That’s pretty harsh (in an upper-middle class way, of course). I’ve been reflecting on similar issues lately (although public schools don’t factor in, because at least for the foreseeable future, we’re committed to $1,000 a month in private school tuition). I’m terribly spoiled by having only $1,000 a month in housing expenses for our rental and I just can’t see doubling that. I like the kids’ camps, I like an occasional restaurant meal (usually one where you order at the counter), I like a bit of travel, it’s nice for the kids to be able to see relatives, etc. But on the other hand, I also like neighborhoods near campus, safety, other kids for our kids to play with, and an attractive and convenient home. A house is about to come up for around $260k (early 1990s, 3000 sq. ft., near campus) and my husband and I spent some time last night doing the mortgage calculator and a lot of hand-wringing. There are only about 30 homes in this neighborhood and they come up for sale so rarely, but it’s just too much house and too much mortgage and the local taxes are very punitive when you go beyond basic shelter (when there are so many $40k houses, the owners of $200k houses have to pick up the slack, revenue-wise).
    Of course, high school may change both our minds.
    I suggest July or August for the Pacific Northwest trip.

  3. Maybe you could buy a $40,000 house and fix it up without attracting the attention of the people who set the property tax values.

  4. There’s not much difference in the outcomes of my friends who went to an Ivy League versus those that went to elite public schools or the not-quite Ivies, like Colgate or Oberlin or Kenyon. Everyone ended up in roughly the same upper middle class suburbs with professional jobs and Subarus in the driveway.
    Yeesssss. Since I live in NYC and I’m a college professor, I’ve been thinking for a while now that the uber-competitive parents are usually the ones who *didn’t* go to an Ivy, and now want to live vicariously through their children. I don’t care what school my kid ends up going for college. And in any case, I’m way too lazy to spend my time pushing him so that he can go to a super expensive private university 15 years from now.

  5. It depends on the town. What sort of options are available for a bright high school student in each town? How is placement into the honors track decided? Is there an honors track? How many students need to take remedial courses in college? How many town residents choose to send their children to private or parochial schools?
    What do school administrators think is their primary mission? Do they prepare students for college or careers? Do they prepare most graduates for vocations? Or do they orient themselves to the state’s minimum standards?
    It doesn’t necessarily correlate with town income. Our town has a high income. The high school offers AP courses. However, acceptance into the AP track is decided in 4th grade, if you work backwards with each level’s requirement. We know a fair number of bright kids who aren’t on the honors track, because their parents didn’t know how to work the system.

  6. Amy, since it is close to campus, could you put in a basement suite and rent it out to help pay the mortgage/use up any excess space in the short term?
    Laura – the trade-offs are that crappy part of being a grown up, eh? Is the education good enough at the boys’ current schools? Do you like the community of friends and neighbours? Seeing less of Steve plus fewer vacations plus no fancy therapist plus no fancy camp sounds like a hefty short to midterm price to pay for the possibility of a brighter and shinier future.
    Are their peers at their current schools the type who will be going on to university later on? If so, then it might be just fine to stay where you are.

  7. We are so not handy (or at least my husband’s efforts would tend to involve bamboo sticks collected from the side of the road). We’ve also got continuing white flight, especially after the last non-VA hospital pulled out of the central city. It’s a tricky business, picking a neighborhood that is not going to go totally to seed. I was talking to a Christian alternamom from school about her street a while back (very good early 20th century housing stock, quite genteel when it was first built). She liked her neighborhood, but mentioned that they had crackheads knocking on the door asking for stuff.
    I was just looking at the lowest end houses in town, using 1+BR/1+BA as my parameter. The cheapest place in town right now is $18k, but the ad says that the gas and electric have been removed. There are a fair number of listings in the 20s and 30s, mostly pretty scary. By the 40s, the houses get more decent looking and there start to be notes about “new water heater” and “multiyear tenant” and so forth. The addresses also get somewhat better. I have a perhaps irrational fear of any listings below $90k.

  8. We’re in something of the same position with the house/school issue, although Toronto thankfully has smaller gaps between “good” and “adequate” schools. We’re staying in our lower-mortgage home for this year (grade 1) to see what “adequate” really means in practical terms. And our zoned high school just started an IB programme so that’s kind of hopeful.
    I do struggle with the trade-off issue and my eldest is only 5. As a Formerly Gifted Child(tm) my best educational experience was at a private high school for high achievers and it was brutal in terms of long hours and high expectations.
    But, it wasn’t my parents pushing me. It was the school, competition with my peers, and me. Unfortunately the school which cost my parents $1200/yr now costs $17k/yr and is unlikely to be an option for us, if my kids qualified (and there might be a certain amount of pushing inherent in that).
    Also – when I was in university the first wave of growth of tech/the Internet was cresting. I hung out slacking on a game with a bunch of fellow slackers…many of whom ended up really successful because they happened to be slacking around when the early dot coms – the ones that actually did pay out in millions of dollars when you cashed your stock in – came along.
    People slacking off in social media is equivalent for the last 5 years – now they’re informing the market.
    Sometimes being pushed down traditional paths means you miss opportunities.

  9. The trade-offs, to my mind, wouldn’t be worth it. As long as the schools are reasonably good where you are, it won’t have much impact on which colleges he can get into, and less family stress = better childhood to my mind. It sounds like you already have some resources available to give him some extra opportunities where you are as well.
    Still, he’s not my kid, and I’m not quite at the point of really having to grapple with all that – a few more years before we have to deal with school choices in a serious way. Good luck! Sounds like you’ve got your head on straight on what’s important.

  10. “Amy, since it is close to campus, could you put in a basement suite and rent it out to help pay the mortgage/use up any excess space in the short term?”
    No basement, I think. One of my neighbors was thinking of buying a duplex near campus and then renting out half, but they ultimately bought a 2.5BR/2BA single family home for 145k near campus. I kind of wish I’d gone for that one, but it was just a bit too small. It’s been a real three bears situation–this one is too big, that one’s too small. I’m waiting for the baby bear house, but we’ve only got one year before the college bulldozes the neighborhood where we currently rent, so there is a very clear deadline.
    We do have options in the form of a very attractive early 20th century neighborhood near downtown. It’s not as close, we’d need a second car, and I have the feeling there’s more crime, but I think we could buy a very tolerable single family home in the higher 100s (probably $160k-$200k).

  11. The cheapest place in town right now is $18k, but the ad says that the gas and electric have been removed.
    Apparently, out of town people were buying some of the cheaper listings in Pittsburgh without even bothering to see them. With no evidence at all, I’ve always assumed they were Californians. Whoever it was, they didn’t think a house could be worth $5,000 and over-priced. In the worst areas, the market value is below zero.

  12. Here’s another option, Laura.
    Come be my neighbor in the northern Atlanta suburbs. Some of the best public schools in the country, substantially lower taxes than the northeast, and you can get a newer 4 bedroom, 2 bath house for $250K.
    If I can’t persuade you to move down here, then I think you should stay put. Those sacrifices are too much!

  13. Aaah. Linking to the real estate listing didn’t work. Probably just was well as 6 bedrooms, 4 baths, and an 800 mile commute don’t work.

  14. I can’t resist chiming in… I would perhaps argue against the current here, at least in saying that the fancy camps and cross-country vacations don’t seem like too bad a trade-off for better schools. Send him to a regular camp; take a summer camping vacation. (The speech therapy and longer working days for Steve are harder calls.)
    Also, I would submit that virtually all the work of parental socializing involves some degree of violence to kids’ basic natures. That’s why they pay us the big bucks. Unless it’s going to permanently harm your relationship, give that cute J a little kick in the pants. :)

  15. Fixed your link, MH. Great house!
    It is. Great location too. Right across the street from the third or fourth nicest art museum in town and within a moderate walk of many bars and the Apple store.

  16. I have non-slacker children. In fact, they’re pretty crazy driven (son came home joyful because he got “bonus” spelling words. Yes, he was thrilled because he got to learn 3 more spelling words each week). They’re competitive and capable.
    But, I make the same decision, and remind myself not to get distracted in my goal for my children: I want them to be happy (well, and productive enough that they aren’t a burden on others).
    I’ve thought and thought about this: “The only kids who are going to get that fat envelope from Harvard are those who have been driven relentlessly by obsessive parents. Kids who have had a more easy going childhood aren’t going there. ” I don’t entirely believe that it’s true. But I have decided that even if it is, that I’m not willing to give up my childrens’ “easy going childhood” for the potential of an ivy league education.
    Now, my childrens’ “easy-going childhood” does involve piano lessons, and aikido lessons, and drama, and destination imagination competitions, SCAT tests, and a academically competitive private school. But, I do believe those things all make them happy. Others might look and say this reflects obsessive driving. But, it really doesn’t. Their childhood doesn’t involve 3 hours of piano practice, or prepping for spelling bees, things I don’t think would make them happy.

  17. In the advice giving mode, though, I will say that I sometimes believe that “slacker” children might have special benefit from being in a more competitive environment. If they’ll do 95% of what’s required, then, being somewhere where the 100% is moremight cause them to push themselves to be a stronger version of themselves (without doing violence to their personalities). I’m really opposed to doing violence to childrens’ personalities, though, and don’t think parenting has to demand it.
    My kids are 130% kids (i.e. spelling + 3 bonus words), so, I tend to discount the value of the competitive environment (though I don’t know what it would be like to be in a different environment). I try to teach them to think about whether 130% is actually making them happy, or if they’re doing it for external motivations. I also try, as much as possible, to tell them how their decisions might affect their future: for example, whether following the rubric for an assignment will influence her grade, and how that might mater, or how learning math vocabulary might affect her performance on standardized tests and how that might affect her opportunities in the future.
    I think as parents, a big part of what we’re struggling with is how to help our children make it in a world where the tournament model is winning out at the expense of other models. The ivy league focus is part of this, the worry that there’s no middle ground. I’d rather work harder to try to protect the middle ground (teaching, as a profession that doesn’t require 80 hour work weeks) rather than trying to make sure my kids win the tournament.

  18. Amy P–I wish we could get in a house for 260k. We’re in a 1500 sq foot house that’s now close to 360 in value. To buy a house in *the* best school district, we’d have to pay well over 500k.
    As for pushing your kids, we’ve gone in multiple directions. Geeky Boy is also a slacker, though he’s coming around to finally getting that this stuff counts now. I have no idea where he’ll end up college wise. He looks mostly like a slightly above average kid on paper with very little in the way of cool extra stuff–he has music and ultimate frisbee. Mostly, we’re letting him chart his own way. He went to music camp this summer. And he’s likely going again, and also doing a creative writing course that’s cheap and at the local state school down the road–a place he might actually go to.
    Geeky Girl, on the other hand, chose to go to Fancy-pants girls’ school when I got my job there. We get a little bit of a break on the tuition, but basically, I have a good idea what it’s going to be like paying for college. Crossing my fingers for better financial aid and scholarship money. Or something. We didn’t push GG into going to a private school, but we did stress–after our experience with the schools with Geeky Boy–that there were opportunities at the private school that aren’t available at the public school.
    I think we kind of have a work hard/play hard model going here. We encourage the kids to work. We are often working alongside them, but when work is done, they have the freedom to do whatever they want. And we do the same. Everyone’s entitled to watch tv when they’re not working.
    One area we insist on work from our kids is household chores. They both pitch in and take turns cleaning the kitchen, walking the dog, and other duties as assigned. They mostly do it without complaint and though we’re lame about giving them allowance, they do get it eventually. Neither Mr. Geeky nor I contributed much to the housework when we were kids, and we think that was a bad thing for us. And it makes us feel less burdened.

  19. I’m still not sure what to think of the whole article, which is compounded by my difficulty taking anything Flanagan has to say seriously. Sorry, still bitter over some of her earlier annoying essays.
    I am the complete opposite of the Chinese mom. I’m not convinced anything I do has much of an effect. I am trying to raise strong-willed independent kids in a world that I think coddles kids and doesn’t promote responsibility. If I take over their education for them, I end up taking over responsibility for their successes and failures, and I want them to own their own. I think a lot of this comes from being a college professor and having to deal with totally unprepared-for-the-world kids who still run to mommy and daddy at any sign of trouble.
    I also read a lot about motivation. Dan Pink had an impact on me, but so did a passage from Annie Dillard’s memoir An American Childhood: “I understood at once that they [her parents] had their pursuits and I had mine. She [her mother] did not say, but I began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your own private passion for the thing itself. I had essentially been handed my own life.”
    My daughter and I had a bit of a discussion last night about this. She had received her progress reports (which I had to sign) and while looking over them, I commented on some of the lower grades, asking what happened. Not judgmental–just curious what she has trouble with. But she said “Most kids have normal parents who take them out for ice cream when they get all 90s” (as she had). I explained that if we took her out for ice cream every time she got 90s, we would be out once a month for ice cream. It’s hard for me to tell if she really wants us to be more proud of her and praise her all the time. She also really likes ice cream and probably would have said anything to try to guilt us into letting her have ice cream for dessert at that moment.

  20. What do you think the kids will say when they’re middle aged? “I wish Dad had worked more.” or “I wish I’d spent more time with Dad.”
    As long as kids have a nice solid work ethic and opportunities to reach the next level (like good support and advice when they’re deciding to go to college and picking their future careers), they will be okay. You seem to be giving them the best of both worlds. That is solid. All the other stuff like “competitive” schools and “better” neighborhoods come with their own cans of worms. Good luck!
    p.s. Glad your hiatus was short last month. I found I missed your link round ups and thoughtful comments on blogonet stuff.

  21. Have you considered renting a house for a year in the town? A lot of these districts are highly overrated, are pressure-cookers or otherwise have significant — and generally underreported — problems.

  22. “Have you considered renting a house for a year in the town? A lot of these districts are highly overrated, are pressure-cookers or otherwise have significant — and generally underreported — problems.”
    That’s a very good idea.

  23. “destination imagination competitions
    I’m afraid to google that.”
    You should. It’s, I think, an example of “good mother” competitions that Chua would scoff at. No olympic medals, scoring rubrics that try to reinforce “creativity”, a small enough applicant pool that the uber-achievers aren’t competing, and an attempt to encourage child-lead rather than parent-lead achievement and learning.
    I am also a Flanagan antagonist, but I think she’s perfectly on point with this article, and the “good mother” reaction to the “tiger mom.” The problem is that we (yes, I consider myself a “good” mother, though I know there are some who probably would disagree) don’t want to raise our children that way, but we realize that not doing so will disadvantage them in the competition compared to the Sophia. I also like the bit where she discusses teaching kids like Sophia (and Lulu), where she describes the “good” mom’s desire for their child to “find” their passion and find their joy from it. What good moms want is for their child to remain themselves (i.e. not do violence to their personality) but be extravagantly rewarded for it. The willingness of some children (and their parents) to reshape themselves in the hopes of these future rewards changes the playing field. Sophia could be shaped to be a winner of the Harvard game, without, I think, doing essential damage to her personhood, but at the expense of giving up a leisurely childhood. There are children for whom damage would be the result (Lulu might be an example) and there are children for whom it would be impossible.

  24. I am trying to raise strong-willed independent kids…
    We don’t appear to have any chance at not doing that, so I may as well start to call it a plan.

  25. “Amy P–I wish we could get in a house for 260k. We’re in a 1500 sq foot house that’s now close to 360 in value. To buy a house in *the* best school district, we’d have to pay well over 500k.”
    I feel your pain. When we finally left DC in 2007, the literally wrong-side-of-the-tracks homes in suburban MD (we were looking in 20850) were in the $400s while the houses in a tolerable school zone started in the $500s (except for one fluke house in the $400s that turned out to be in the shadow of a large and very ugly water tower). Since we moved to Texas, some of the wrong-side-of-the-tracks houses in 20850 have dropped nearly 50%. The tolerable school houses have also dropped a ways, but not as dramatically.
    When we were in DC, $400k looked bargain basement since at the time it was almost impossible to find anything with that price with a tolerable commute with good public schools. Since our move (and also since the kids have been getting bigger and more expensive), I’ve recalibrated my ideas of what is and is not an expensive house. Currently, I wince at every dollar past about $150k.

  26. I disagree with Flanagan that Chua’s model is winning. Even if the daughters get into top colleges, that proves what? Celebrities have a leg up in the process? Thanks, I already knew that.
    My husband and I, and our two older children read the Chua book. Refrains in our house: “She’s crazy.” and, “It’s all about her.” OK, my husband could only make it 80 pages in, because he felt ill. On balance, 5 to 6 hours of music practice a day doesn’t leave a kid any time to develop other skills. Were it not for the book, and the ace-in-the-hole double professorship, I don’t think the Chua girls would have brilliant outcomes in the college admissions competition.
    We’ve discovered our kids will mentally check out if the academic content isn’t interesting. They’d all meet the state proficiency limits without much help, so there’s no “red meat” in the public school classroom instruction, which is being molded by our state tests.
    A student can do very well in the college race if he stands out from the pack, and if he can demonstrate that he’s academically prepared. Our cousin’s son made it to Carnegie Mellon. His best friend, whom our cousin swears is quite smart, just dropped out of the state college. If you have a lot of drive, and parents savvy enough to supplement the standard offerings, you can do well. If your parents don’t have the time or knowledge to drive the guidance office crazy (until they agree to things like independent study), you can sink.
    Supplementing the student’s high school career can be a part-time job in itself. Our cousin discovered she was able to head off the most tricky proposals from Guidance by insisting that all communication go through her. (Example of tricky proposals: multimedia art instead of chemistry. Automotive repair instead of independent study Calculus. Basically, she was able to veto treating her son as a warm body to fill up classes, by dint of her proven willingness to camp out in the Guidance Office until they gave her son a college prep schedule to make her go away.)

  27. BJ, you’re right. Destination imagination competitions do look interesting. The name still makes me want to sneak out of study hall for a smoke.

  28. “So, if we all end up in the same place, why torture the kids like that?”
    So, we don’t all end up in the same place, though. That’s part of the big point of Flanagan’s article. You’re focusing on the ivy league thing, but really, it’s about what you need to do to win the tournament where you become not just Sophia, with her admission to Harvard, but also Amy Chua with her professorship & a best-selling book or Jed Rubenfield. And your odds of being any of those three are increased (though not at all guaranteed) if you’re raised like Sophia (and you are a sophia-like child).
    If you don’t get your 10 year old to practice piano or golf for 3 years a day, you probably are precluding their chance of being Sophia or Tiger. And you might be precluding their chance to experience all that Harvard has to offer (and mind you, it’s a cool place). I’m comfortable with making the trade off, and unwilling to make the trade off when it seems like I have to decide too much of my childrens’ future (because they’re too young to make choices), and trying to educate my children about the trade-offs, so that they can decide for themselves. But, I do feel like choices we make now will change opportunities in the future, and that we won’t all “end up in the same place.”
    I mean, in the long run, we all end up in the same place, but what we do in the middle matters.

  29. I don’t think that Sophia and Lulu would end up at Harvard in the natural course of things, if it weren’t for their mother’s book. The kids from around here who end up in the Ivy League and such places are the self-driven kids, not the parentally-steered kids.
    Practicing piano for 5 hours a day doesn’t leave you much time for anything else. Fighting with your mother over it eats up time, too. There’s always the killer interview question, “why do you enjoy playing the piano?” “My mother yells at me if I don’t” won’t get you into Harvard.
    I’m more concerned about the generally low expectations public schools will set for Other People’s Children. There’s a whole line of argument which paints parents who want their children to get a good education as high-pressure parents. The department of education’s push for “college or career ready” education is interesting, because in many American high schools, the graduates are ready for neither college nor careers.

  30. “The only kids who are going to get that fat envelope from Harvard are those who have been driven relentlessly by obsessive parents. Kids who have had a more easy going childhood aren’t going there. ”
    As a prof at an elite liberal arts school, and as someone who went to an Ivy, I know rich legacies and ‘tiger cubs’ (and a handful of celebrities) are nothing new. But, for decades, the admissions committee’s work has been to seek out the quirky and arty and odd. Some level of unconventional genius — academic or athletic, ethnic or geographic or religious — is what makes the Ivy League campuses distinctive.
    The ‘opt out’ strategy may very well inadvertently raise the type of quirky kid that has a shot at getting admitted to the Ivy League. I think maybe Laura is just being super-strategic.
    Unless the whole enterprise collapses in the next decade, which is entirely likely.

  31. But…becoming an Amy Chua or just a normal upper middle class person doesn’t come down to whether you went to Harvard or not. It’s just that the personalities like Amy Chua are more likely to end up at Harvard, but (IMO) it’s a correlation, not causation. Studies show that children who are accepted at top schools but turn them down for state schools are just as successful if not more so, in large part because people with highly driven personalities are likely to succeed whatever their circumstances are (within reason). Beating your naturally laid-back child into getting into Harvard necessarily won’t make them uber successful in the long run, unless you plan on micromanaging their job searches, job performance, grad school apps, etc. Likewise, if your kid is driven, going to Rutgers won’t hold them back from becoming a law prof with a bestseller.
    My guess is also that the Sophias or Amys would excel regardless of parenting style. My mother was very hands off when I was a teenager, in part because she was a single mother working 60 hours a week and traveling extensively, and in part because her attitude is “it’s your life, you make your own choices and deal with the consequences.” My siblings and I Tigermomed ourselves–choosing to be organizational kids par excellence. We worked from 6 am to midnight doing homework and extracurriculars that we had signed ourselves up for, and half the time we had no idea where our mother was.
    I guess my point is that if your children are extremely driven perfectionists, they will Tigermom themselves. If not, then you will have to do perpetual violence to their personality for most of their adult life if you want them to become driven, and at that point, is a more externally successful child who is less happy better than a less externally successful child who is more happy?

  32. I think I disagree with the framing, where moving to the better district is a “tiger mom” decision, while staying in the lesser school district is a more relaxed “lifestyle” choice.
    We elected to buy a tiny house (Raggirls share bedrooms) in the “best” school district in South Jersey, and consider it a “lifestyle” decision. We are very happy with our choice, as we don’t feel like we have to tiger-mom the girls to success. The good schools allow us to have relaxed weekends and avoid expensive tutors or Sunday-afternoon writing clubs. There’s also a non-competitive atmosphere of knowing that “everyone” is going to a good school, and so you’re not fighting your peers for a single slot.
    And it’s not really a trade off between relaxing with your friends or building up extracurricular resume stuff. Eldest Raggirl joined the 4th grade science team this year because “that’s where all her friends are.” A play date in the science lab building a catapult is just as fun as one in the basement playing Wii. Probably more so. It’s a version of “Don’t marry for money. Go where everyone is rich and then marry for love.” Don’t force the girl to love science, just move to the land of scientists and let them choose whatever they want.
    We have friends in much bigger, less expensive houses in nearby districts who feel that we are ridiculous for spending so much to be where we are, but we think of it as paying for quality of life instead of an extra bedroom and den.

  33. We’re in between sports seasons and for the first time in a while, we had a wide open schedule. Steve was able to take the boys for a two hour hike on Saturday, and a two hour bike ride on Sunday. While they were out enjoying the great weather, they were observing nature and jumping on logs and chatting with their dad. On Sunday afternoon, I taught Jonah how to write a persuasive essay, which he knocked out of the ballpark. I’m still so impressed with him. Their grandparents took them out for dinner on Saturday night and chatted with them.
    Both boys learned a TON this weekend in a low stress, loose, unstructured, uncompetitive manner.
    bj: “But, I do feel like choices we make now will change opportunities in the future, and that we won’t all “end up in the same place.””
    Honestly, we do. Kids who go to Colgate or U. Va. don’t end up on welfare. They can have their pick of professions. Jonah won’t be able to be a concert pianist or a Tiger Woods, because we haven’t driven him that hard. But we’ve driven him hard enough, so that there’s still plenty of ways for him to excel in the future.

  34. It’s the same with girls’ athletics, by the way, which I know our host is a big proponent of. The Raggirls are not naturally gifted athletes, and are not the first to line up to be on the team. This year, Eldest Raggirl elected to play neither basketball nor soccer. (We didn’t force her, and she plays softball in the spring.) She was suddenly alone most afternoons, as all of her friends were off at practice. Next year, she’s already said she’s playing basketball.
    I’m guessing not a lot of small towns can support a females-only sporting goods store, but ours does.
    http://www.hersport.com/

  35. I realize my comment is more on the Tigermom meme, and doesn’t really have to do with your choice, since your’s is about school quality, not pushing your child to do the activities to get them into Harvard.
    I think the school choice depends on how terrible your schools are (are there any honors/AP classes? regular school shootings?) and to what extent it would affect your children’s chances of going to (any) college. If Jonah were to graduate taking the most challenging workload in the school district you’re in now, getting mostly As, and doing ok on the SATs, would he be able to get into a selective school? If the answer is yes, then I’m not sure moving would provide a huge advantage. A top student at a less good school is not necessarily less well off than a middling student at a top school, and there are other tradeoffs. If Jonah stays where you are, he might have a better shot at becoming SB president, or valedictorian, or in some other way doing something prominent at his high school, which also matters for college admissions.

  36. regular school shootings?
    Regular school shootings would be avoidable. Irregular school shootings are harder to plan for.

  37. “And it’s not really a trade off between relaxing with your friends or building up extracurricular resume stuff. Eldest Raggirl joined the 4th grade science team this year because “that’s where all her friends are.” A play date in the science lab building a catapult is just as fun as one in the basement playing Wii. Probably more so. It’s a version of “Don’t marry for money. Go where everyone is rich and then marry for love.” Don’t force the girl to love science, just move to the land of scientists and let them choose whatever they want.”
    Indeed. The newest homeowners in the neighborhood that I have my eye on are 1) a physicist with three little kids and 2) a chemist’s family. If we manage to move there, we will be 3) the amateur astronomy/woodworking family.
    “A top student at a less good school is not necessarily less well off than a middling student at a top school, and there are other tradeoffs. If Jonah stays where you are, he might have a better shot at becoming SB president, or valedictorian, or in some other way doing something prominent at his high school, which also matters for college admissions.”
    I don’t know about that. I went to a so-so high school, and while there were some areas of competence (English, history, chemistry, math), the other sciences were so-so. Probably the worst was my physics course, taught by a nice lady who was running a political campaign at the same time, and which never got beyond playing with mousetraps and springs. It was a total waste of my time and If I had wanted to pursue engineering, I would have gone splat my freshman year in college.

  38. I firmly believe that an Ivy League education isn’t worth either a huge parental intervention (which can backfire or lead to a kid who’s not able to sustain the momentum) or a huge sacrifice (catastrophic levels of debt). I went to a Midwestern public university and got a fabulous, wide-ranging education. Eldest may shoot for the stars (even Harvard!) but we’ve told her there are limits to how much we’ll contribute.
    That said, I am aware that our cultural capital gives our girls an enormous advantage. I’m a second-generation university professor: of course I know the system and how to navigate it.
    Many of our elder daughter’s friends come from similar backgrounds: they’re the ones, like her, flocking to the IB program and promoting good (if imperfect) study habits. Other friends’ parents don’t know how to give their kids the most effective support, even if that’s something far short of Tiger Mother extremes.

  39. Colgate, Kenyon, U. Va. and even (shudder) Rutgers are not exactly open admissions. Have you reviewed your high school’s track record for those schools? Does the debate change if the school choice changes from Harvard vs. Rutgers to Rutgers vs. Elizabeth State.

  40. Laurence Steinberg’s _Beyond the Classroom_ indicates that peers matter. Families matter, too. I don’t believe that affluence itself correlates with academic values. I have heard of a certain number of rich-kid potheads (according to my daughter, who’s a good source for local gossip.)
    Then again, one town’s idea of an adequate public high school is another’s idea of a failing school. It depends on the local value system. Our town values sports over academics, to judge by the facilities Are there any small-college towns around?

  41. One of the problems I see in this debate is the issue of “measureable” v “immeasurable” learning and achievement. There’s pretty much no doubt in my mind that a child who spends 2 hours a week taking a walk through the forest, or one who reads the newspaper from cover to cover every day, or paints an oil painting once a week is learning and accomplishing something. But, these activities can’t be measured and ranked. So we have kids participate in spelling bees, and geography bees, and piano competitions, and sports contests, and standardized testing (and, even my fond Destination Imagination) because then their achievements can be measured and appear on their CV’s.
    Colleges can spend all the time they want trying to pick out the “quirky” fabulous kid from the “organization” kid with lots of parental involvement but as long as parents think there’s something they can do to help their kids’ chances, lots of them will.
    I still think the solution to this problem (and I do think it’s a problem, because I think we are selecting one type of kid and encouraging one kind of development, an achievement oriented, early executive function developing, practice/focus oriented child and development) is for colleges to start randomly accepting students after screening for certain criterion. Then parents won’t try to figure out whether winning third in a state chess championship outweighs 2nd in the spelling bee, and might, even, let their child take the hike if that’s what they prefer.

  42. bj,
    The nature lover can do guided walks (for instance for the benefit of Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts or a school field trip) or can do an internship at an arboretum or botanical garden or work at a nursery or work as a gardener (native plants are VERY trendy). They could do a portfolio, showing how they transformed a bare spot into a carefully planned garden. The child who reads a newspaper every day will get better grades in history and related courses and will write a better college application essay explaining their choice of major. The oil painter can include a portfolio of paintings, maybe even in the form of links to a website and could do a show at a local gallery. There are so many possibilities (I understand that some of them will be uncongenial to the less social).
    In the past, I’ve actually thought of trying to qualify as a guidance counselor because I think it’s a misunderstood art. Unfortunately (although I may be misunderstanding the requirements), in the state of Texas a high school counselor is required to get certified as a teacher and work two years, as well as get a master’s degree in school counseling, so it’s total credentialing overkill.

  43. Then parents won’t try to figure out whether winning third in a state chess championship outweighs 2nd in the spelling bee, and might, even, let their child take the hike if that’s what they prefer.
    parents with tons of money > grandparents with tons of money > biggest pumpkin (Butler County Fair) > chess champ > has taken a hike > spelling bee > yodeling champ

  44. I think you’re wrong. I’m guessing yodeling champ might count for something (especially if you sent tapes) and showed a sincere passion for yodeling (well, at least, it might be better than being a regional chess champ).
    I actually think there might be colleges that would consider lottery acceptance after screening. It’s the parents who wouldn’t like it — and, who knows about the kids. And, everyone would argue about the screening. Would you set the bar high? Would there be anything that would guarantee acceptance (2100+ SATS, daughter of a current president or Intel science fair semifinalist + elected queen of Naboo?)

  45. My old neighbor has a Facebook update connecting three crises that happened on the 11th of the month (9/11, the Japan earthquake, and last year’s Haiti earthquake) with John 21, 10-11 and the end of the world. I’m wondering if I should tell her the Haitian earthquake was on the 12th?

  46. Maybe it’s because I’m a life-long Midwesterner and was a first-generation college student, but I truly do not see what the big deal is about the Ivy League. Unless one hopes to be a national politician, I don’t see how it makes that big of a difference in a person’s life, long term. I truly do not.
    I went to a SLAC–a non-prestigious one, affiliated with the Mennonite church (Bluffton college). I received an excellent education. When I started grad school, I was nervous because most of my new classmates had gone to Ivies, public Ivies, and prestigious SLACs/state schools. Once we really got into the work of the course, it became clear to me that I was just as well-prepared,if not better-prepared, for grad school than they were.
    Maybe I didn’t have some of their polish (i.e., social class background). Oh, well. I still got into every Ph.D. program I applied to. I earned my Ph.D. from one of the best, if not *the* best, programs for my specialty in the country. And yes, it’s a state school (gasp!). None of the Ivies even have a relevant Ph.D. program in my field.
    Do I worry about my kids’ education? Sure, but I don’t worry at all about the Ivies. My goal is for them to have any career path open to them. I had a horrible K-12 education; I was able to become an English professor because I spent so much time reading and writing on my own as a kid. If I had wanted to become a M.D., I couldn’t have done it, due to the weakness of my science education at my religious school (no chemistry, physics, or calculus courses were offered). Those aren’t the types of subjects I could teach myself, the way I taught myself the works of Shakespeare and Richard Wright.
    I don’t want that to happen to my kids, so M goes to a elementary school that is a science magnet. Our neighborhood high school offers more AP courses than any other school in the county. Are its test scores as high as the suburban schools or the fancy-pants private school? No, but the opportunities are there for the kids and parents who want them and who are savvy enough to get them. I’ll make sure my kids do. Right now, that’s good enough.
    Good luck as you make these decisions, Laura.

  47. So, to get back to the topic, if the world is ending, you can probably have vacations and the good school district since the 401k isn’t a concern. If the world doesn’t end, you’ll have financial problems, but on some level you can say the same about 99.9999% of the planet.

  48. To return to the topic, Flanagan has a point, but Amy Chua’s parenting style isn’t the answer.
    A few years ago, the NYT ran a piece on supposedly “perfect” high school seniors, and college pressures. I think 11D commented on it. Ah, here it is: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/01/education/01girls.html.
    They sound like nice, smart girls. Whoever allowed the first girl to think that she could get into Williams from Newton North with 2 APs? The complaint of “Race to Nowhere” does stem from affluent parents who want to give their children the stars, even if the children aren’t amazingly academic.
    On the choosing a district front, one Massachusetts town found 81 students enrolled in their classrooms who did not live in town. Many lived 20 miles away, in New Hampshire: http://www.thebostonchannel.com/education/27198506/detail.html. (I don’t recommend this approach to solving the school quality question.) Methuen’s schools aren’t the top of the charts in state test scores, they’re about 2/3rds of the way down the list, which makes me wonder about the zoned schools in New Hampshire and Lawrence. (http://tinyurl.com/4qmxtut)

  49. one Massachusetts town found 81 students enrolled in their classrooms who did not live in town
    Don’t make Wendy cranky so early in the morning. Anyway, I went to a high school with that didn’t offer AP at all and I think it really hurt me when looking at schools in the east.

  50. It’s funny. I went to enroll my kiddo in public pre-K last week and I had to bring a copy of the deed to my house. (Had I been a renter, I would have required an affidavit from my landlord). The PTA mom doing the paperwork was surprised that they required it — evidently it’s a new layer of bureaucracy. The fear of non-property tax paying outsiders encroaching in the public school system seems to be increasing.
    The NYT did a story on the growing numbers of students who are not college or work reading coming out of high school, something that affects the Ivy League as well as “lesser” 4 year institutions and community colleges. But one wonders why the frenzy if the students come out unprepared?
    The parental focus on extra-curriculars seems to be a strategy based on an assumption of academic success of their children. I’m quite sure that colleges would much prefer their applicants to be good writers and critical thinkers rather than yodeling stars.
    But I’m a professor, so my emphasis might not be the one applied by college administrators and guidance counselors. And it’s difficult to show good writing and critical thinking (particularly the latter) in a college application. It seems a problem of evaluation, not qualification.

  51. To answer the posed question: if the only criterion is school district excellence, the answer is no. The school districts are not separated enough in their output to justify the sacrifices.
    But there are other criteria, right? The boys are in different school districts and have different break schedules, which affects your ability to get full-time work, if you want it. The desired town has better services for your youngest, and will allow you more of a community than the farther flung district he currently buses to. These to me are not trivial issues.

  52. Yes, I ask that if you discuss residency requirements and their enforcement, you wait until I am out of the room, so to speak. I think my BP rose about 10 points just reading that article on Methuen.

  53. In support of Wendy, even though my son goes to a private school, I’m going to tell all local officials that I live in the nicer school districts without the 3% wage tax of my current district.

  54. “Whoever allowed the first girl to think that she could get into Williams from Newton North with 2 APs?”
    See, it’s when people say things like that, that everyone freaks out. I’m not saying that one should have been able to get into Williams from Newton North with 2 APS, but, really, every bit of it is talking in code as far as even I am concerned, and I am pretty knowledgeable about colleges. I’m not even sure what you mean by “2APs” Does that mean 2 AP courses? Does it mean getting 2’s on her APs (and I do know what that means). I know nothing about the selectivity/influence of Newton North or Williams.
    That lack of knowledge makes people worry, not that their kids aren’t academically talented enough, but that their academic talents haven’t been appropriately packaged and displayed. That’s at least part of what fuels the frenzy (though I do also agree that part of it is not understanding/accepting the talents of the child they actually have). But, the part of it that you worry the most about is the part that you fear you could have done something about (like putting your kid in a school that has more AP offerings, or guiding (though Chua would call it demanding) them to spend more time on studying biology and less on yodeling).

  55. In my biology class, we had a substitute teacher during “dissect the little pig” week. We made him sick enough to leave the room. How to annoy a substitute, along with knowing what pig’s kidneys look like, are the only useful things I learned in biology. (I needed to know what kidneys look like because otherwise I might have accidentally eaten one when I went to England.)

  56. I’ll expand the “2 APs” comment. Newton is one of the premiere suburban districts in Massachusetts. Many students take AP exams. Looking at the DOE report on Newton, available online, in 2008 – 09,
    174 test takers in Newton took 3 or more AP exams. More than 94%of the test takers received a 3 or greater.
    So, in the field of students from Newton, the girl in the New York Times article isn’t in the top of her class. Two APs in Latin and History are fine, but students in her senior class are taking AP exams in the sciences, math, English, and history, etc.

  57. “How to annoy a substitute, along with knowing what pig’s kidneys look like, are the only useful things I learned in biology.”
    I learned nothing at all from two years of high school biology labs, other than that the critters smell bad. (I suspect a lot of kids would benefit more from well-designed lab software because you can redo things if you accidentally mess up your shark.) The textbooks and the movies in my biology classes were informative. My biology II teacher himself was mainly a basketball coach and liked to chat about basketball with his favorite players during much of the class, so he brought more or less nothing to the table aside from correcting assignments and running the VCR. In high school chemistry, the lectures, reading, and assignments were very helpful (I know this because a couple years later, I took non-lab college chemistry for poets and did fine), but I don’t think I had a clue as to what I was doing in the chemistry labs. My numbers never seemed to work out right, but that was probably my obtuseness. As I wrote before, the worst of the bunch was my high school physics, which I’m kind of embarrassed is on my transcript at all. Between the teacher herself being unqualified to teach probably any science class at any level and her preoccupation with the political campaign she was running, I really could have learned more from home ec. But the admissions people wouldn’t have understood it…I hope that physics class didn’t mess my ambitious classmate who wanted to be a NASA engineer up too bad. I don’t have my transcripts in front of me, but I probably got As in almost every one of those classes, despite the very different academic experiences in each. And that is why we have standardized testing.
    “So, in the field of students from Newton, the girl in the New York Times article isn’t in the top of her class. Two APs in Latin and History are fine, but students in her senior class are taking AP exams in the sciences, math, English, and history, etc.”
    I figured. I had just two APs also (English and US History), but that’s all my high school offered. To not partake of the full bounty your high school offers really worries admissions officers. I also took a couple of SAT subject tests, including something like European history that I had never taken a separate class in, and I also had credit for one college English lit course (a summer course at University of Washington) and probably two quarters of correspondence school Russian (also from UW). Looking at that list, I guess it is possible to make up for a subpar high school.

  58. Here in Australia, our choices are a little different (the financial sacrifice for a better school is mosty about paying private school fees as college admissions depend totally on the final school exam). But we face the same kind of tiger mom questions, with some kids spending three hours every day after school in coaching colleges to get into the right schools, and get good marks in that final exam once they are there.
    I reckon the child turned about by that system isn’t great at talking to people, which is what makes you successful unreal life, once you’ve finished school and college. So we are deliberately spending money on life experiences, rather than school (we are currently traveling around the world for a year, which is an extreme example, and not available to everybody!)
    There was a fascinating study done by our state school department into achievement at school and the effect of peer groups. I’ll come back and put the link in a later comment. It compared the achievement of different socioeconomic backgrounds at schools with peers, or with those of much higher or lower socioeconomic backgrounds. There was a big difference. Not all of it due to peers, I imagine (possibly better teachers and pant community) but some of it must have been.

  59. Have you explored the homeschooling network in your current location? It might be possible to cobble together outside courses and home study for J if you don’t want to do all the work yourself. I can’t say if that would be effective for your younger son. It might, though. Extra household money can lead to wonderful fire lighting opportunities for kids (Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire). And homeschooled kids can be interesting to top colleges, I hear.

  60. I was an alumni interviewer for my Ivy League school and believe you me, it’s easy to pick up who’s a nasty little grade-grubber being strategic (but who possesses no actual intellectual curiosity) and who’s actually a fascinating kid who lights up the room with his excitement when he talks about his project. And the kid who’s excited about his projects and his life probably will do well anywhere. Now I teach at a university which is not prestigious and every day I am amazed by the students I do meet who are bright and interested and motivated. And because it’s a smaller university with more laidback students (and professors), these students get to hang out with their professors, have coffee at their houses, do research with them, and generally get a lot more attention than they would get if they go to Harvard. Schools I’m considering for my kids include Sewanee (just LOWERED their tuition!); St. Mary’s COllege in Maryland, and evergreen state. And for what it’s worth, with all my fancy degrees I live next door to a guy who’s a plumber and I’m pretty sure he makes more money than I do.

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