What the Rich Do Differently

Sean F. Reardon has an excellent rundown of the research on the education gap between the rich, middle class, and the poor in Sunday's Times. We all know that kids from poor families have a huge disadvantage when they start school. They begin school behind their peers, and the gap between them and their wealthier peers grows over time.

These findings are sad, but nothing new. What is new is the growing research that finds that rich kids have huge advantages over middle class kids. 

The most potent development over the past three decades is that the test scores of children from high-income families have increased very rapidly. Before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students in academic performance; most of the socioeconomic disparity in academics was between the middle class and the poor. But the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor. Just as the incomes of the affluent have grown much more rapidly than those of the middle class over the last few decades, so, too, have most of the gains in educational success accrued to the children of the rich.

Reardon believes that the rich are able to do more with their kids, because they have more money than in the past. The rich are richer, so they are spending more money on tutors and fancy camps. They are also parenting differently. 

High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.

Are rich parents really parenting differently or are middle class parents under so much economic pressure that they don't have time to parent like they did in the past?  I need to poke around in the research a little more, but I am very interested in your impressions. 

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50 thoughts on “What the Rich Do Differently

  1. Marriage is also different now. It’s more likely now for a doctor to marry a doctor, for a lawyer to marry a lawyer, etc., whereas in the past, there were more often spectacular mesalliances with the closest pretty face or less spectacular matches between professionals and secretaries (not that secretaries would be dumb, but the secretarial pool would be more intellectually diverse).
    Later marriage enters into this, too, as older professionals are older (duh), highly trained, higher earning, and more financially secure.
    Are we really surprised that the children of two brain surgeons might test better than the children of two postal workers who in their turn test better than the children of two convenience store workers? There may be untapped intellectual resources, of course, but the brain surgeons are a proven quantity.

  2. Most of the studies I have seen suggest that it is high-income professionals whose working hours have dramatically expanded over the past three decades. So I doubt that middle-income families are falling behind because of a time squeeze.
    Here is one alternative explanation. Marriage is increasingly correlated with income, and if I recall correctly, this correlation extends across the spectrum, so high-income families are more likely to be two-parent families. Obviously, this structure permits more parent-child time.

  3. I’ll make time to read the article today. My off-the-cuff reaction, though is that an important point is being missed.
    It’s not the same “Rich.” Rich people today would have been middle class in the days when most great fortunes were based on possessing factories. They would have been actuaries, teachers, lawyers, clerks, small store owners.
    The rich people of yesteryear lived in the era of the “Gentleman’s C.” Some of their descendants are able to make As, and do. Others aren’t. Being a scratch golfer and a social drinker no longer suffice. In other words, beware of survivor bias when talking of “the rich.”
    There are many memoirs and histories written about changing fortunes. I can recommend: _Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor_, by Tad Friend, _Dead End Gene Pool_, by Wendy Burden, _Splendour & Squalor: The Disgrace and Disintegration of Three Aristocratic Dynasties_, by Marcus Scriven. See also: http://www.philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/the_transience_of_american_wealth

  4. I wonder. I wonder about a couple of factors.
    First, yes, the additional cultivation is no joke. In my day, cultivation efforts of the local UMC were limited to music lessons, a couple of language camps and maybe a trip to DC or Europe. Now in our blue state UMC suburb, every spare minute is filled with expensive lessons, camps, tutors, SAT prep etc. Even an ambitious middle class family can only afford a fraction of all that.
    Another big factor is schools – at least here, price of admission to a public school with great teachers, APs, top-notch extra-curriculars, and good advising is a house in a pricey suburb that middle class families are less and less able to afford. And schools in less wealthy suburbs are being starved for funds and programs are getting cut.
    I think it can only get worse. People like to say that housing prices have stabilized but the price of a starter home in a good school district has at least doubled here since I bought my first house.

  5. I found the article rambling when I read it the first time, and I still find it rambling. My reaction was similar to one of the comments in the comment thread (I do think the NYT gets a decent class of comments): that once again we get the prescription of investing in preschool teachers and investing in everyone as a solution.
    I do think we should invest in education, but I think the investments we could make would do nothing to address growing disparities in the ability of the rich v the middle class to “cultivate” their children. The main motive for that disparity is the perception that the goals for our children (the short term college goal, which one could dismiss as unimportant, but also the long term goal of secure careers/lucrative careers) are ever more difficult to obtain. In that circumstance every parent is incentivized to do what they can to give their children a shot at those best outcomes, and that includes using all resources (including money and connections).
    I do think parents’ willingness to spend money on their children opens an interesting entrepreneurial track for the high achieving folks of previous generations. Tutoring, sports, enrichment activities seem like they could be a huge growing industry.

  6. Regarding schools, though, I think again, that it’s that our rich schools are offering so much more, not that our poor schools are offering less (or even the middle class schools). Comparisons to 30 years ago show much more AP/high level classes, offerred to more students, more sports, more music, . . . at all the “suburban schools” as far as I can see.
    (poor schools I don’t have as strong a knowledge of, and I believe there’s a significant urban v rural disparity there in offerings, with poor schools potentially having classes, but also dealing with significant problems of drugs, gangs, and violence, while rural schools don’t have the classes at all).

  7. I think what frustrates me about this class of article is that they seem to devolve in the government somehow playing a role in providing the best, rather than a minimum, or a an adequate level of service in those areas where I, like most liberal progressives, believe the govenrment should play a role.
    But, if we start arguing that the government should provide a lexus, or a rolls-royce to everyone, we quickly give power to the people who don’t want to do anything, because, we can’t afford to give everyone a rolls. We undermine the ability to support public transportation, say, when we complain that they’re not as good as the luxuries that the rich buy themselves. That’s true for transportation, in which the middle-class seem less vested in providing the best, but also true for education and health.
    Maybe part of the issue is what the definition of a luxury is — if one defines luxury only as those purchases that don’t affect outcomes, they might include music lessons but not a lexus.

  8. It’s interesting to think of how technology is challenging education while the rich are seeking ways to differentiate themselves from middle and lower “classes” through education (thinking about why the rich purchase high fashion).
    MOOCS of Hazard
    http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112731/moocs-will-online-education-ruin-university-experience#
    Competency-Based Education Advances With U.S. Approval of Program
    http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/u-s-education-department-gives-a-boost-to-competency-based-education/43439
    Using Data to Find Hires
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/technology/how-big-data-is-playing-recruiter-for-specialized-workers.html?hp&_r=0

  9. If everyone had a Lexus, it would not be seen as a status symbol. The average school will always be mediocre. Now, today’s mediocre might have been seen as very good thirty years ago.
    I am very worried about the sales job being done to push computerized education. As prophesied in an Atlantic article some decades ago, it does seem the poor will have computers, while the rich will have teachers.

  10. “I am very worried about the sales job being done to push computerized education. As prophesied in an Atlantic article some decades ago, it does seem the poor will have computers, while the rich will have teachers. ”
    Me too. I wrote my “big” term paper on computers in education in high school, in the 80s. They were over-hyped back then, too.
    My dad was telling me of a computer effort they tried when he was teaching (in the 80’s), with a professor teaching to a remote classroom: they had closed circuit television with a teacher at the main campus teaching to students in a workplace. At the time, it failed because the technology was insufficiently reliable. That’s a computer technology that could work now and it does have a niche in the market place (and is being implemented, in the moocs, in Kahn Academy, and other sources that bring good explanations/lecturing to larger groups of people). Some evaluations, computer programs, for example, might be well automated. But teaching, especially to the young or disaffected is still going to require human beings who care, I think.

  11. It’s already happening. The math class in my kid’s elementary school (they graduated awhile ago) apparently consists of sixty kids sitting in a room using software and one instructor making the rounds for when they get stuck. And the PTA is raising money for more software. Apparently pretty good software is seen as preferable to a lousy teacher.
    I’m not sure the government should provide music lessons to every child. Part of my incentive for working so hard is to be able to provide certain things for my kids. If everyone’s just going to get all these things anyway, then where is the incentive to work so hard?
    Besides, where my sister lives the schools are so awful that they didn’t get accredited, and everybody got a note in the mail saying they could now have free math tutoring at some commercial place. My sister notes that she was actually the only one to go there and sign her kids up. And it’s the same math tutoring that we were paying over two hundred dollars a month for, by the way. Short of dropping a math tutor off at everyone’s house, how do you propose the government make people actually take advantage of the resources they are being offered?

  12. This is kind of catty but I can’t help myself, re. Megan McArdle: If you have to hire tutors for your kid to do well in school and on the SAT, then your academic ability isn’t really hereditary, is it.

  13. from McArdle: “All the people who are really good at school are marrying the other people who are really good at school, having children who are really, really good at school”
    Plenty of rich people didn’t do well in school. Doctors might have, but I have met lots of rich parents who didn’t. Some inherited their money, some married it, and others are like Richard Branson, dyslexic but an incredible entrepreneur, who didn’t do well in school but found great success in their chosen careers.

  14. re: tutors. So, Jonah got the flu this winter and missed a week of school. He caught up in everything but math. His math is now officially over my head, so I couldn’t help him. In this high acheiving town, his math is a whole year ahead of our previous working-class town. The entire class is doing the work that Jonah’s honors math class did in the old town. I decided to hire a tutor to help him catch up, but I couldn’t because all the tutors in the area were already booked up. He eventually caught up, but only after Steve drove him into school early every single day for extra help with his math teacher.
    Why are rich kids ahead? Tutors, high expectations from the school, super involved parents.

  15. Also, because he has a fantastic math teacher who comes in early to help kids like Jonah. She also stays after school and works with kids during lunch. I need to buy her a great gift at the end of the year.

  16. Or just make sure you tell her how much you respect and value the work she does, for Jonah and all the other kids. I know that teachers feel under siege these days.

  17. “Maybe part of the issue is what the definition of a luxury is — if one defines luxury only as those purchases that don’t affect outcomes, they might include music lessons but not a lexus.”
    Private music lessons are a luxury.
    Our kids have fairly serious group music instruction at school (choir and some recorder stuff). My 5th grader loves recorder and has taught herself a number of songs (I’ve kept her supplied with lots of books of music), but I don’t think she’s particularly talented. (She really connected with the teaching method for recorder, which was that she earned a different colored yarn tassel for her recorder case every time she mastered a song.) She had some music ability testing (grandma’s a psychologist) and tested very average. I think I could probably interest her in flute, but 1) it’s going to be a lot of money that could be spent on something else 2) I think her talents lie elsewhere 3) I have never had music instruction myself (I “forgot” my recorder throughout 6th grade), so I would have to fake my way through it and 4) I’d have to get her to practice while faking music knowledge that I don’t possess. 5) Homework, vegetables, and exercise already require a lot of vigorous persuasion on my part and I don’t think she needs another sedentary pastime 6) My husband is tone deaf.
    If individual music instruction were “free,” I’d have to rethink my calculations on this, but as things stand, we would be paying through the nose and suffering big time. As it is, we may give flute a whirl, but I’m not going to make huge family sacrifices for it. We could take the whole family to Disneyland before very long if I set aside that sort of money every week.

  18. So, Sean Reardon wrote: In a more recent study, my graduate students and I found that 15 percent of high-income students from the high school class of 2004 enrolled in a highly selective college or university, while fewer than 5 percent of middle-income and 2 percent of low-income students did.
    Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery researched low-income students’ application strategies. Many such students with great grades and test scores didn’t even apply to the highly selective colleges. Most low-income students who have top test scores and grades do not even apply to the nation’s best colleges, according to a new analysis of every high school student who took the SAT in a recent year.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/education/scholarly-poor-often-overlook-better-colleges.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
    You can see such a pattern in the pages of the NYT’s Choice Blog. A National Merit Finalist from Arizona applied to: Arizona State University, University of Arizona, and the University of New Mexico. She writes about the colleges which appeal to her, and those which don’t: http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/20/envelope-please-candice-childress-3/.

  19. Amy P,
    I had low-cost music lessons at music center funded and run by our city’s parks department. The teachers were excellent, and in addition to teaching various string instruments and piano, they also had an orchestra, music theory classes, and a chorus. I am not sure what the exact price was, but I know it was very reasonable and much cheaper than my sister’s private piano teacher, who was pretty cheap, as far as private lessons go. Lots of the students were children of Asian immigrants, and there was also an Mennonite family with 7 kids. I don’t know if this is common in other cities.

  20. B.I., I don’t think tutoring translates to high SAT scores and admissions to highly selective colleges. If you’re interested in more than snark, I’d recommend Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford’s _No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life_.
    The authors write in one passage: The lower portion of Table 3.9 examines the relation between acceptance rates and the adoption of particular admission enhancement strategies. Three patterns are evident. First, attending a secondary school other than the neighborhood public school to which one has been assigned is associated with a significantly higher probability of being admitted. The differential is on the order of 10 percentage points, a substantial difference considering that the average acceptance rate at private NSCE institutions is less than 25 percent. Second, there are several strategies that appear not to be associated with acceptance rates. The chances of being admitted are essentially the same whether or not one participates in academic enrichment activities in high school or visits a large number of colleges and universities prior to applying. Third, and perhaps of greatest interest, taking a test preparation course and using a professional consultant to help with the college selection and application process are both significantly negatively related to being accepted. One reason this result is surprising, apart from the fact that many prospective students and their parents believe that it does help, is that admission deans are unlikely to know for sure which applicants are adopting these behaviors.
    Now, the authors do caution that the negative correlation with SAT coaching could be explained by other variables.
    For what it’s worth, on the anecdotal level, the kids who did really well on the SAT, then went on to highly selective schools in our circle of friends are the kids who were too busy with extracurricular activities and advanced classes to take SAT prep classes. They did supremely well on the SAT without prep classes.

  21. I think people obsess overly much about the ability of the rich to offer SAT prep & consulting. The real value of money is the ability to drive your kids to a tutoring session early in the morning until they don’t need it, to drive your kids across town to the team they can play on, and to be there at every game, to provide music lessons (not just for the music, but for the discipline and other learning they provide), . . . .
    I agree that individual music lessons are a luxury, because I don’t think that we can use the criterion that anything that has an effect is a not a luxury, in education, but also in health care and transportation. Money will buy things, unless we really do support socialism (and, even I don’t, though my definition of basic supports is fairly broad).
    I do think that exposure to music is not a luxury, because I think it’s exposure that leaves the possibility of discovering extraordinary talent, that someone will pay for (if its there). Then, yes, the rich kids get a leg up, ’cause they get the lessons without needing the extraordinary talent. But without exposure, I worry about the undiscovered excellence, both for the nation, and for the individual.

  22. Amy P, why have you decided your daughter has no talent for the flute before she’s even touched the flute? If she has taught herself songs from recorder books, she may have the drive to be successful playing the flute. It may give her joy.
    I suggest you rent a flute, and set her loose with a few flute beginning music books, and youtube videos. Call the band or orchestra or music director at your local high school, and ask for the names of flute playing high school students who would be willing to teach an absolute beginner. You can ask friends or family if any of them have a flute sitting around in the attic. (Actually, I just looked on eBay and Amazon. Flutes are really cheap. See: “Mendini MFE-PL+SD+PB Purple Lacquer Closed Hole C Flute with 1 Year Warranty, Case, Stand, Cleaning Rod and Cloth, Joint Grease, and Gloves” on Amazon. Less than $90.)
    There is a huge danger inherent in using psychological testing to prune away opportunities. Why would you use such things to declare to a kid she’s not good at it? She’s already showing unusual interest and drive, which cannot be forced. Also, how reliable is such testing, especially in children who haven’t had formal musical instruction from a young age?
    Even if she drops flute after an attempt, learning to read music is tremendously valuable for later musical activities, such as choir.

  23. I think discussing genetics is irrelevant to policy making. True, if genetics played a role, we may continue to have significant differences in equality of outcomes even with equal opportunity, and we might be in danger of entering a Vonnegut novel in order to avoid the unequal outcomes. But, we are so far away from equal opportunity that discussing ways of providing opportunity for all shouldn’t be intruded by any discussion of genetics at all.
    I believe, as a practical matter, that sustained and significant, intransigent income inequality is unsustainable in a democratic free society, that there are thresholds at which the system will fail. So, I think we need to talk about the issues, not just for the self actualization of individuals who may be disadvantaged, but for the sustainability of society.

  24. “The real value of money is the ability to drive your kids to a tutoring session early in the morning until they don’t need it, to drive your kids across town to the team they can play on, and to be there at every game, to provide music lessons (not just for the music, but for the discipline and other learning they provide), . . . .”
    I have to agree with this. I have (relatively) plenty of cash. But I don’t have enough to pay someone to drive my kids everywhere, and I have limited time to do that without going crazy. As it is, Mondays and Tuesdays kill me. I had to talk my husband into switching off weekly psych visits because the drive was killing me, and it’s not too far away.
    I never pushed my son into team sports mainly because I didn’t need another place to drive. If he had really loved it, maybe….

  25. Hey, and I think Amy’s D should try basketball, too :-).
    I do disagree with the idea of using psychological testing to prune opportunity (as Cranberry puts it). I recently read about the Myers-Brigg “test” (which is really a parlor game, now) and learned that it was developed to guide career outcomes. In practice, it was quickly discovered to be completely unreliable (testing variability was high) and non-predictive of outcomes (particular testing results did not predict job success).
    I’ve heard the Duckworth Grit scale is having some success in predicting outcomes, but in general, psychological tests are pretty bad at prediction, even when they are correlated with outcomes (correlations are too low).
    The way to find out if you’re good at something is to try to do it for a while.
    (We’ve given up music lessons for our eldest for all the similar reasons Amy describes, except the psych test, but before we gave it up, we tried it for three solid years.)

  26. Cranberry,
    The idea that differences in admissions rates are due to hereditary traits passed down through selecting mating deserves nothing but snark. But I digress.
    bj, Wendy,
    I want to shout ‘good public transportation’ at the top of my lungs. In HS I had a single mom who worked about 60 hours a week at a very underpaid job, including lots of traveling away from home. I was also an “organization kid” who Tiger Mom-ed myself with a million extra curricular activities. I got to almost all my lessons and extracurriculars on the bus or bike. I could do this because I lived somewhere that was easily bikeable and with good public transit. If I’d grown up in a suburb or a city with poor public transport, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do a fraction of what I did. I think I’ve made this comment before, but because of the city I lived in, I got a quite upper middle class on a middle class salary, since so many of the things parents elsewhere have to pay through the nose for were provided for free. Sometimes I get a little depressed when I realize that I probably wouldn’t be able to provide my children with the upbringing I had unless I move back to my hometown, which is unlikely.

  27. bj said:
    “The real value of money is the ability to drive your kids to a tutoring session early in the morning until they don’t need it, to drive your kids across town to the team they can play on, and to be there at every game, to provide music lessons (not just for the music, but for the discipline and other learning they provide), . . . .”
    Yes! You have to 1) have the money 2) have the time and energy to make things happen. Just one of the two components won’t do.
    And let’s not forget that at least 90% of the music is going to be happening at home, under parental supervision. To commit to an instrument means to commit to the practice. And ideally, that means knowing enough about music to tell if your child is just phoning it in. It’s perfect practice that makes perfect, not just practice makes perfect. I know about the demands of music (despite not knowing a thing about music itself) and I would really, really prefer not to have a musically gifted child. I know what that involves, and I don’t want it. (One of our close relatives was a three-hours-of-practice-a-day, 8-hour-round-trip-to-cello-lesson-every-week child musician who eventually blew up on the launchpad, so I have a very jaundiced attitude toward serious music for children.)
    bj said:
    “I agree that individual music lessons are a luxury, because I don’t think that we can use the criterion that anything that has an effect is a not a luxury, in education, but also in health care and transportation.”
    I’d add to what I wrote earlier that if I had a child who was the second coming of Mozart, I would see individual lessons as a necessity rather than a luxury, but fortunately, that is very unlikely to be the case. The average person is average.
    In our family, our 5th grader has been doing therapeutic horse riding for the past several years. Every time she gets on a horse, it costs us $45 for the group lesson.

  28. cranberry said:
    “Amy P, why have you decided your daughter has no talent for the flute before she’s even touched the flute? If she has taught herself songs from recorder books, she may have the drive to be successful playing the flute. It may give her joy.”
    I’m going to give her an opportunity sometime in 2014 (summer or fall–we’re moving again this summer). We have a very good school of music in town that does lessons for children. However, I’m not going to nag her to practice (I need to save my energy for homework, veggies and exercise), I’m not going to go Amy Chua, and I’m not going to drive two hours one way for lessons. If she practices, she can have lessons in town. If she won’t practice, we will not pay for lessons. (I realize that it’s easier to say that than actually follow through, but that’s my theory.)
    cranberry said:
    “There is a huge danger inherent in using psychological testing to prune away opportunities. Why would you use such things to declare to a kid she’s not good at it? She’s already showing unusual interest and drive, which cannot be forced. Also, how reliable is such testing, especially in children who haven’t had formal musical instruction from a young age?”
    Her recorder playing doesn’t sound that great, although maybe I’m expecting too much from a $5 plastic instrument.
    C’s school does do music theory from a pretty early age, which is why she has been able to teach herself songs from books. She even has been trying her hand at composing for the recorder (of course, I have no idea how to evaluate her efforts).
    Wendy said:
    “As it is, Mondays and Tuesdays kill me.”
    This spring, we had our 2nd grader in speech therapy twice a week for a stutter and “th.” We’re almost done with it, but Tuesdays and Thursdays have just about killed me. 2:20 feed baby 2:40 leave house with baby 2:55 carry baby in car seat up stairs to school office and meet D 3:15 pull stroller out of trunk, attach car seat to stroller frame, walk to speech therapy, hand D off to speech therapist 3:30ish collect C from school, drive back to the college, park, pull stroller out of trunk, attach car seat to stroller frame, walk to speech therapy 4 collect D from speech therapy.
    Today’s the last day, I’m hoping.
    bj said:
    “Hey, and I think Amy’s D should try basketball, too :-).”
    I think he should (the college basketball team even runs a kids’ basketball camp). Unfortunately, he doesn’t want to. Also, he’s short for his age. He is a natural athlete, though, very muscular and with amazing stamina, and the kids’ school has mandatory team sports starting in 4th grade (he’s in 2nd). I think he may be more of a track kid. I’ve already told him that if he wants to enter a 5k or 10k run that we would cover entrance fees.

  29. I should have written a bit more about our speech schedule:
    4:20ish return home and feed baby
    4:50 collect all three children and leave the house
    5 pick up husband from work
    5:15ish super early dinner at college cafeteria (yay!)
    6ish get home, feed baby again
    rest of evening: homework, bedtime snack, kids tidy bedrooms, laundry, set out uniform for next day, etc.
    I need more activities like I need a hole in the head.

  30. I mock you all.
    3:45 – Pack up Ian who is grumpy, because it’s a weird day and our routine will be off.
    3:55 – Bagel store. One everything bagel with cream cheese for Jonah and a large gaterade.
    4:00 – Middle school track. Watch a track meet. Well, only watch the part when my kid runs. The rest of the time, I’ll be reading twitter on my iphone.
    5:45 – Drop Jonah off at soccer practice. Drive 30 minutes to a party.
    6:15 – Jonah’s orthodontist makes so freaking much money that he rents out a huge play center once a year and all patients and their family and friends get free pizza, video games, and rides.
    7:30 – home. books, bath, bed.

  31. And let’s not forget that at least 90% of the music is going to be happening at home, under parental supervision. To commit to an instrument means to commit to the practice. And ideally, that means knowing enough about music to tell if your child is just phoning it in. It’s perfect practice that makes perfect, not just practice makes perfect. I know about the demands of music (despite not knowing a thing about music itself) and I would really, really prefer not to have a musically gifted child. I know what that involves, and I don’t want it. (One of our close relatives was a three-hours-of-practice-a-day, 8-hour-round-trip-to-cello-lesson-every-week child musician who eventually blew up on the launchpad, so I have a very jaundiced attitude toward serious music for children.) (etc.)
    Who says anything about being serious? Or perfect? My older children play different instruments, sing, compose music, try out new things. They both read Amy Chua’s book, and I can’t repeat what they say about her on a family blog. To put it succinctly, they think she’s an abusive parent.
    Playing music, with friends and alone, is a joy for them. Kids and teens who like performing music together are often nice peers. They have chosen to continue musical activities. No force is required. I would not recommend anyone set their heart on molding their children into professional musicians, who are not nearly as happy as school bus drivers. (http://www.myplan.com/careers/top-ten/highest-job-satisfaction.php)

  32. And let’s not forget that at least 90% of the music is going to be happening at home, under parental supervision. To commit to an instrument means to commit to the practice. And ideally, that means knowing enough about music to tell if your child is just phoning it in. It’s perfect practice that makes perfect, not just practice makes perfect. I know about the demands of music (despite not knowing a thing about music itself) and I would really, really prefer not to have a musically gifted child. I know what that involves, and I don’t want it. (One of our close relatives was a three-hours-of-practice-a-day, 8-hour-round-trip-to-cello-lesson-every-week child musician who eventually blew up on the launchpad, so I have a very jaundiced attitude toward serious music for children.) (etc.)
    Who says anything about being serious? Or perfect? My older children play different instruments, sing, compose music, try out new things. They both read Amy Chua’s book, and I can’t repeat what they say about her on a family blog. To put it succinctly, they think she’s nuts, and an abusive parent.
    Playing music, with friends and alone, is a joy for them. Kids and teens who like performing music together are often nice peers. I would not recommend anyone set their heart on molding their children into professional musicians, who are not nearly as happy as school bus drivers. (removed link due to spam filter.)

  33. “Who says anything about being serious? Or perfect?”
    Even the not so serious level is 20 or 30 minutes a day of practice, right? I fear that I would have to engage in violations of the Geneva Conventions to achieve even that.
    Plus, there’s the issue of opportunity cost. If the child spent an extra 20 or 30 minutes a day running laps or learning Spanish vocabulary wouldn’t that be at least an equally good use of time for many or most children?

  34. Amy, I might be selling my daughter’s flute (I’d like to get her a better one). Not sure how much it’s worth, though. But it’s a typical school rental, so decent quality.
    bj, re public transportation – YES! I am a big believer in public transportation and self-motored children. I lived a mile away from my school and walked to and fro almost every day.
    But nowadays the real risk is that there are so many freakin’ cars on the road these days and too many distracted drivers. My former home, where my mom still lives, is a street full of lunatics, racing around this one curve, one hand on the wheel, the other hand on the cell phone. (I walk my dog around the block daily when I’m there.) I look at the streets where we used to play kickball and wonder how we ever did that with so many cars zooming through, so many cars parked on the streets. S’s dance studio is a mile away (shorter as the crow flies), but to get there she has to cross a major intersection into a strip mall area. We’re just not comfortable with that. I don’t worry about her being kidnapped; I worry about her being hit by a car.
    Laura, you’re a better man than I, Gunga Din. I’m a wreck just walking the dog and getting S to dance, and I’m stressed over having to pick her up in 20 minutes. Also had to vote (Ed Markey vs. Stephen Lynch in the MA Dem primary today). (I voted for Markey.) (Maybe now the political phone calls will stop.)

  35. No. Exercise or vocabulary exercises are fine things in their own right. Music is a different skill set. Music may potentially help students learn other things. The Dana Foundation has supported research into children and arts education. Visit their website. The entire study on Learning, Arts, and the Brain is available there for download. http://www.dana.org/news/features/detail.aspx?id=12466
    Let’s start with the potential role of attention as described in Dr. Michael Posner’s research at the University of Oregon. First, he has evidence that specific brain networks are involved in learning different art forms. He begins with the premise that some children are especially open to—interested in—one or more forms of art. By the way, he speculates that differences in children’s openness to an art may have a genetic component, and genetic studies have begun to yield some candidate genes.
    If a child is open to a specific art form, and receives training in it, the child will develop strong motivation to sustain attention to learn it. With highly sustained attention, according to Posner’s research, the child essentially walls out competing things, and the child’s cognitive abilities are generally enhanced.
    Interestingly, his colleague at Oregon, Dr. Helen Neville, found evidence that attention may be the common factor that accounted for improved cognitive test scores in children in three groups of special Head Start classes: those who received music training, those who received training in how to focus their attention, and those who received regular Head Start instruction but in a smaller class size. So, classroom exposure to various arts in children who are open to one or more art forms may prove to be an important way to strengthen their abilities to focus attention in general.

    As to 20 or 30 minutes of practice a day, well, what are you aiming for? There’s a difference between technical proficiency aimed at a performing arts career, and learning enough to be able to do more with the knowledge and talent. Musicians who can play one instrument find it easier to pick up a second (and more). The knowledge is transferable. Knowledge of the elements of music–rhythm, tone, chords, harmonies, keys, etc., does not go away.
    The fine motor control trained in musicians also does not go away, and is useful for other pursuits.
    Your daughter already shows strong interest (for her age and lack of specialized training) in music. Please allow her to follow her own interests. That’s one of the best ways for children to find things they enjoy doing.
    I would not say, “everyone must make their children learn an instrument.” If a kid would rather play softball than learn the flute, that’s great. On the other hand, your daughter shows a natural inclination to explore music. There’s a huge difference between exploring an art form for one’s own satisfaction, curiosity and enjoyment, and perfecting performance. I greatly prefer the former. Children should play music. It should be joyful for them.

  36. No. Exercise or vocabulary exercises are fine things in their own right. Music is a different skill set. Music may potentially help students learn other things. The Dana Foundation has supported research into children and arts education. Visit their website. The entire study on Learning, Arts, and the Brain is available there for download. This passage came from a news release interview with Michael S. Gazzaniga, director of the University of California, Santa Barbara’s SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind and its Summer Institute in Cognitive Neuroscience, who led the three year, seven university study. (again, links seem to make my posts automatic spam, so look at dana dot org.)
    Let’s start with the potential role of attention as described in Dr. Michael Posner’s research at the University of Oregon. First, he has evidence that specific brain networks are involved in learning different art forms. He begins with the premise that some children are especially open to—interested in—one or more forms of art. By the way, he speculates that differences in children’s openness to an art may have a genetic component, and genetic studies have begun to yield some candidate genes.
    If a child is open to a specific art form, and receives training in it, the child will develop strong motivation to sustain attention to learn it. With highly sustained attention, according to Posner’s research, the child essentially walls out competing things, and the child’s cognitive abilities are generally enhanced.
    Interestingly, his colleague at Oregon, Dr. Helen Neville, found evidence that attention may be the common factor that accounted for improved cognitive test scores in children in three groups of special Head Start classes: those who received music training, those who received training in how to focus their attention, and those who received regular Head Start instruction but in a smaller class size. So, classroom exposure to various arts in children who are open to one or more art forms may prove to be an important way to strengthen their abilities to focus attention in general.

    As to 20 or 30 minutes of practice a day, well, what are you aiming for? There’s a difference between technical proficiency aimed at a performing arts career, and learning enough to be able to do more with the knowledge and talent. Musicians who can play one instrument find it easier to pick up a second (and more). The knowledge is transferable. Knowledge of the elements of music–rhythm, tone, chords, harmonies, keys, etc., does not go away.
    The fine motor control trained in musicians also does not go away, and is useful for other pursuits.
    Your daughter already shows strong interest (for her age and lack of specialized training) in music. Please allow her to follow her own interests. That’s one of the best ways for children to find things they enjoy doing.
    I would not say, “everyone must make their children learn an instrument.” If a kid would rather play softball than learn the flute, that’s great. On the other hand, your daughter shows a natural inclination to explore music. There’s a huge difference between exploring an art form for one’s own satisfaction, curiosity and enjoyment, and perfecting performance. I greatly prefer the former. Children should play music. It should be joyful for them.

  37. Wrote a long post. Twice. It vanished. Check out the dana foundation’s study on learning, arts and the brain.
    Music training seems to improve other elements of cognition.
    More seriously, though, if pursued for its own sake, it can bring joy to our lives. Don’t try to create a performing artist. Allow your child to follow her bliss. Right now, it sounds as if she is drawn to music. Good things will come.
    Don’t do it as a mechanism to win acceptance to selective colleges. Many college applicants play instruments or sing. It does seem to correlate well with good outcomes, but I think it’s too common in the pool to be a big hook. (Amy Chua’s daughters don’t count. Poor kids.)

  38. I was actually being a bit sarcastic about D & basketball (forgot that Amy’s middle one is initialed D, and was referring to the eldest, who we’ve already been told did not like basketball).
    But, I could make all the same arguments for basketball, and do, on occasion. For my child, basketball has brought fitness (she needs the scheduled activity), large motor skills, the ability to get better at something that she wasn’t initially great at already, attentional skills of physical team work, learning to win and loose, physical confidence, . . .
    And, a link for the cognitive correlation for sport: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0034731), soccer, but I’m guessing the same thing would apply to basketball; there’s more than one study). I don’t think we can argue the relationship is causal (i.e. sports -> better executive function, but the data is as good as it is for music.
    I don’t actually think people should play basketball instead of cello; I thin they should do whichever they enjoy and I think doing something, seriously, is of great value.

  39. cranberry said:
    “More seriously, though, if pursued for its own sake, it can bring joy to our lives. Don’t try to create a performing artist. Allow your child to follow her bliss. Right now, it sounds as if she is drawn to music. Good things will come.”
    OK guys! You convinced me! I will try to overcome my phobia of music instruction.
    I asked C (the 5th grader) after dinner, “How much do you want to do flute?” and she said, “A lot.”
    True story: When I was C’s age or maybe a bit younger, my grandma offered to pay for piano lessons for me. My dad refused, on the grounds that when he and his siblings were growing up, there had often been a plate of cookies on the piano to encourage his sister to practice, and she had subsequently struggled a lot with her weight.

  40. Fun to do if you have iCal (calendar app for macintosh). Look at the year view: the calendar will appear with a heat map with the number of items in the calendar corresponding to color. My daughter did this for last year and discovered one day, one, during the whole year, with no events or travel.
    I think I may have you all beat for driving the kids around (since we drive the kids back and forth to school; the kids are playing five sports, one music lesson, a team academic activity, DI,and assorted other activities). This month we have both across state and across country travel for the kids’ activities.). But I’m not going to list a schedule because it freaks me out. Seriously crazy cultivation going on here (and, yes, it’s expensive).
    Was it here that one of the moms with grown up kids referred to these years as the “calendar years”?

  41. There’s a hilarious bit by the “Neurotic Parent’s guide to college admissions” that points out that playing piano very well is not a “hook” (unless you are a professional artist by the time you apply to school).
    “Perhaps you can help me. Although I am a superior Chinese mother, I just realized that I have made a terrible parenting mistake. I forced my daughters to learn the piano and the violin and they are now virtuosos. However, as you know, the Ivies will be flooded with applications from thousands of other Asian kids who have studied these instruments. Can you help?”
    the NM did help:
    “Okay….How about this? It’s a long shot, but it just might work. What if you became absurdly strict with your daughters, almost borderline abusive? You could forbid playdates and sleepovers, and perhaps even burn their stuffed animals if they don’t get straight A’s. That would give your girls plenty of material for great college essays, full of lots of conflict. What do you think?”
    http://neuroticparent.typepad.com/collegetour/2011/01/leaked-emails-between-the-neurotic-parent-and-the-tiger-mom.html

  42. I hope Laura doesn’t mind all my comments.
    bj said:
    “I was actually being a bit sarcastic about D & basketball (forgot that Amy’s middle one is initialed D, and was referring to the eldest, who we’ve already been told did not like basketball).”
    C (the 5th grader) actually would like to do basketball. I forget if I told you this story, but last year (4th grade) C was invited to not play basketball for her school team, and she took it very hard. At our school, we have mandatory team sports that normally everybody can play on, but the coach thought (admittedly with excellent reason) that C wasn’t going to be much of a basketball player. We eventually ironed out the issue with the school. They offered us the option of C not doing choir performances or team sports, but with consultation from C’s psychologist, we’ve been working on including her as much as is feasible.

  43. Amy, I am the mother of the kid who practices the violin for five hours a day voluntarily and who forces us to spend all our money on music lessons and a violin that cost as much as a car. (Oh, and having our back porch enclosed so we woul have somewhere to retreat to when we couldn’t hear ourselves think because of the Mendelssohn Concerto being played loudly on the expensive violin. And the occasional weekend away that my husband and I take to escape the practicing.) I know this terrain! I would suggest that you look into finding a local music camp for your daughter to try being serious about music over the summer if you have more time over the summer before locking yourself into a commitment to music lessons during the school year. If you live anywhere near a town that has a youth orchestra they probably have a summer music program that she could try. Your town probably has a Music Program Coordinator through their dept of education (might be called an Arts Program Coordinator). They would know if any local schools have a summer band camp or the like. Pay for two weeks of camp and see if the kid is still gung ho. If so, then pay for the lessons.
    Interesting point about the time and the driving. I do remember that back when we lived in an expensive DC suburb and I was still forcing my kids to do soccer (before realizing that no one in our family has any hand-eye coordination and they never will), I really envied the women who could stay at the soccer field til 5:30 and then swing through a place like Fresh Fields and pick up a pre-made healthy dinner for the family that would set them back 50 to 50 bucks, ad that they could do this several days a week. Part of the reason we gave up the intensive sports is because we couldn’t afford to do this. Instead our family got a ton of mushy crockpot food, sandwiches a lot and sometimes fast food. I just couldnl’t see forcing everyone to eat like that for eighteen years so we could play soccer badly. It’s the other stuff — the money for gas, the hotels (once they get into travel soccer and all that stuff), the meals in restaurants during weekend away games, the Fresh Fields stuff during the week — that seem to provide the comfort cushion that make the neurotic parenting doable. One takeaway that I got from the Amy Chua book was just how much MONEY she had to be spending on her kids — roundtrip drives to NYC for lessons, paying people to PRACTICE with her child while she was teaching, presumably meals and Starbucks and all that while in NYC attending the lessons, the cost of the lessons themselves. And there were clearly families in the ritzy DC suburb who had 3 year olds in Kumon, followed by tutors for the (so-called) ‘gifted test’ in second grade (If you need to game it, you ain’t gifted), followed by tutors throughout elementary, middle school ad high school, followed by enrichment activities over the summer, etc. etc. etc. When we lived there, there were people financing all this with home equity loans who subsequently lost their houses. Just saying . .

  44. Right now, Ian has special needs baseball (once per week), special needs swimming (once per week), an occasional social skills group. I’ll probably sign him up for a special needs art class soon. Jonah has travel soccer (3 practices, one game per week) and track (two practices per week).
    We’re not spending that much money on after school activities. Nothing is VERY expensive. None of the travel games require over night hotels. I don’t send out for food very often. But we’re managing all this, because I’m home. I work very flexible hours, so I can manage all this. I buy dinner supplies and plan dinner in the afternoon. I spend hours researching activities (particularly for Ian) and filling out paperwork. If Ian’s activities have a therapeutic element, then there’s insurance paperwork. The expense is my lost income. It’s a luxury, no question about it.

  45. “Five hours voluntarily with a violin?”
    I get this, though not about violin. I totally understand how a child could be passionate enough about something to spend that much time on it. Practicing, getting it right, the music itself can be a completely self-reinforcing reward.
    I have been like that about a variety of activities in my life (something that having kids changed for me), and would have thought that everyone lived that way, until my own life felt different (that I just didn’t know what it was they were immersed in, rather than that they didn’t have anything). My kids share the trait, though not in quite as self-reinforcing a way, and, potentially, they are doing too many different things to develop the same level of passion for one thing (one of the things that freaks me out about their schedule).
    The Big Bang just did an episode in which their “normal” character, Penny, wonders about why her science-buddies have so much more passion than she does. It’s not that unusual in lots of communities.
    (Oh, and, it is what colleges are looking for, though your particular passion might not be what they need to round out their class cast at that particular time).

  46. This American Life’s episode this week was “Music Lessons.” It’s a repeat from the late ’90s. Amy P, (and other parents debating music lessons), you should listen to the podcast. Eerie timing.

  47. bj said:
    “…though your particular passion might not be what they need to round out their class cast at that particular time).”
    I LOVE the term “class cast.” That is so funny and so true!
    The Amy Chua advice column thing was great, too.

  48. cranberry,
    You encourage me to think that there may be some middle ground between
    a) tuneless squeaking and yowling
    on the one hand and
    b) three to six hours a day of maniacal practice, financial ruin and the perpetual search for the perfect cello teacher (who is always two to four hours away), followed by conservatory and (unless very, very, very, very lucky) years of underemployment
    on the other hand.

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