Too Big To Fail

As Jonah and his friends are entering into junior of high school. This is the year that will determine which college they attend, what kind of jobs they’ll have, whether they’ll have a cushy job at a law firm or whether they’ll be living in the basement in their 20s. Their whole future is boiling down to the next 12 months!

Of course, that’s not true. But that’s what everyone tells me. I’m particular fond of those conversations with other parents, where they subtly brag about their kids and poke to find out tidbits about Jonah. What colleges is he looking at? What honors classes is he in next year? Is he on the varsity cross country team? These comparisons — the weighing of the kids — is all very subtle, but it’s there.

Getting kids into the most competitive colleges requires a lot of behind-the-scenes work by the parents. And I’m doing it, too. I found an SAT program for Jonah and drove him to classes. I’m driving him to cross country practice every morning. Yes, the cross country season starts in July. I’m helping him stay organized to finish an online class. I helped him chase the driving teacher at the high school to schedule his driving lessons. He just turned 16 and he’s a boy, so he still needs this guidance. I think.

It is difficult to know when we should back off. Where is that line? When do you let the kid fuck up? And how do you back off, when every other parent isn’t. It’s a competitive arms race.

A friend of mine owns a small business in town. She says that a distressing number of parents come into her shop to line up a summer job for their teenagers. She says she never hires those kids.

Megan McArdle has a great column about this.

The upper stratum of the Trophy Kids really are going into college expecting to live in a sort of Nerf universe where nothing ever really hurts, and there’s always an adult to pick them up and put them back on track. And they’re coming out into the workforce expecting the same sort of personal concierge service from a world that, as I was myself dismayed to find 20 years ago, really doesn’t have time to care how they feel.

I know she’s right. She’s absolutely right. There’s total insanity around me.

Steve and I have agreed that we will hover a bit more, but when he goes to college, it’s done. We expect that he’ll maintain at least a B average. If he can’t do that, then he comes home and goes to a community college.

Jonah and I chatted on the long drives to SAT class this summer about everything from Skinner’s experiments to Bernie Sanders to ISIS. In between the running and the SAT class and the driving lessons, he’s actually had a bit of free time. He’s been spending his time on Reddit and on more obscure websites. He’s learned quite a bit of random information. It’s all self-directed and amazing.

From one of the websites, he learned about the sensitive plant. He nursed a bunch from seeds, and they are now proudly potted on his desk. They keep him company as he surfs the web. It’s funny, but of all his accomplishments, I’m most proud of that damn plant.

UPDATE: Frank Bruni is talking about this, too. Also has a bunch of links to recent books on this topic.

17 thoughts on “Too Big To Fail

  1. I know the world you’re describing, and the worry about how to balance the guiding. Also know about the subtle poking to find where your kid is in the hierarchy In the MS-> HS transition (private schools) it’s a gender specific poking (because the perception is that there’s a separate competition for girls and boys), but I’ve just noticed that it’s expanded across gender.

    It’s tough to find the balance, I think, because you can’t set your rules independent of everyone else. If the parents in your kids school are routinely keeping track of schedules and homework, for example, your kid *will* be disadvantaged if he doesn’t have his own personal assistant. I recently realized that some in my crowd are hiring the college consultants (and yes, there were consultants for MS & HS, too).

    I love the description of the plant and understand the pride — my kiddos are pretty accomplished, but for me, as well, it’s those accomplishments that are not aiming towards the finish line that make me the proudest. I love the plant story, but also hate myself for then imagining how that plant becomes a college essay.


  2. The leaves that gently unfold when nobody is touching them… Sigh. Such an easy target… I’m already using it in an essay, so Jonah can’t.


  3. It’s weird that middle class people with boring lives think they are such experts at life that they can direct the next generation. I guess we look back at our own youth and think we deserve a chance to do it perfectly this time, vicariously, but it doesn’t work that way. So much of life is random. I think if a kid does not have mental health issues or other special needs, it’s best to back waaaay off and let them figure things out themselves, starting with the college application process. Letting a kid handle that independently is great preparation for being in charge of his/her own academic life after college. They can do it! And even if they mess up it’ll be fine because there are plenty of colleges out there and they’ll get in somewhere.


    1. I agree with Sandra. There seems to be this sense that they are not allowed to make mistakes at all. They absolutely must do it all right, right now. There really isn’t any rush. They can screw up and still have it all work out, so back off.


    2. I think one has to consider the global competition. There’s a world out there where you don’t get second chances, where your life really does get set by the exam you take when you are 16. What happens when the worlds meet? I’m not sure.

      (and, the concept of who is able to take the risk of failure is important here — cited in Laura’s next post).

      Those super-high levels of child achievement — they are a collaboration between parent and child, even if the parent’s only role is to drive the kid around where they need to be.


      1. Much of this depends on how you define success. If you believe that only the ivy league or small liberal arts are good schools, then I suppose you will have this attitude. If being in a big law firm and making lots of money young is your definition of success, but being a public defender is not, then I guess you will think this way.

        “There’s a world out there where you don’t get second chances, where your life really does get set by the exam you take when you are 16.

        Where? Really – I hear about this all the time, but where is it?


  4. Well, I know people from parts of the world where stiff competition begins in high school. They did not describe their experience as a nerf cushioned realm, rather more like Marine Corps boot camp starting in first grade.


  5. 1) Megan McArdle doesn’t seem to be writing about Trophy Kids she knows; she seems to be writing about the Trophy Kids who show up in hand-wringing books in the Worried Oeuvre. Granted, stories about disciplined workaholics who set a goal and work methodically toward it will not sell many books, as they’re not very interesting.

    It’s far more interesting to repurpose the extreme outliers as the norm. You’re more likely to be booked as an Expert in the Field.

    2) Psychiatric treatments and IEPs have supported students who would have been sorted out of education in earlier years. I think it is a good thing that these students are not automatically shut out of higher education. The difficult thing seems to be the shift from living at home under mom & dad’s supervision, to living in a dorm without supervision. The weird roommate down the hall might have been fine had he been able to live at home with someone to make sure he takes his meds, meets his advisors, and gets enough sleep.

    3) I have not heard of any helicoptered kids in our town & schools getting into big-name colleges. There have been a few (allegedly) loud maternal meltdowns when reality hit. (and why is it always the mothers?)

    4) Many of the kids who do get into the Trophy colleges are very bright workaholics, who like being constantly busy. I was horrified by this article several years ago, but I recommend it highly:

    The students in the article are beyond their parents’ reach. They are going without sleep for extracurriculars because they want to.

    5) Junior year is the year high school students have decided is the most important for colleges. I believe it marks the point in the brain’s physical development at which they can conceive of present actions having future consequences.

    6) The big advantage educated parents have is the ability to coach their children in how to deal with college bureaucracy. We spent the summer before our kids’ freshman year encouraging them to think about future majors, and reading the course listings. Our oldest child is adept at getting guidance from professors and deans. Reminding students to be aware of deadlines is important.

    I have been enlightened and shocked by _Paying for the Party_. Choice of dorm (i.e., not a “party dorm”) can be important. Choice of major–important.

    7) To deal with nosy parents. I always spoke (positively) about the colleges we had visited, but my kids did not like. People love to gossip, but I’ve found just not responding to the inquiries was best. About courses–“Oh, I forget. I hope I signed the right forms…was something sent through email?” If they’re persistent, “We’ve agreed as a family only to talk about college stuff on Sunday night, and not outside the family.”


    1. To specify…we encourage them to read course listings. We don’t read the course listings ourselves.


  6. Laura said:

    “A friend of mine owns a small business in town. She says that a distressing number of parents come into her shop to line up a summer job for their teenagers. She says she never hires those kids.”

    The worst babysitter I’ve ever had I got through her mom a couple of years ago. I needed a helping hand for few hours when our youngest was a newborn, so I emailed our local Catholic chaplaincy to look for a college student sitter, hoping to be put in touch with the Catholic Daughters, or some other group full of young women that love babies. The secretary recommended her highschooler daughter and I hired her sight unseen.

    A more inert, joyless, unimaginative sitter I have never seen. It took me a while to put 2 and 2 together and realize I should have hired somebody that was looking for a job, not somebody whose mother wanted her to have a job.

    However, that said, I have set my daughter up to mother’s helper for my good friend with a toddler and an older disabled child, and she always gets good reports. But, I do make sure that she needs pocket money and is eager to work! (We paid the kids each $15 to wash some windows for us this summer–I was very pleased with that, as it would have been a big job without them, and commercial window washers would have cost a bundle.)

    Kids need to be a little hungry!


  7. Laura said:

    “Steve and I have agreed that we will hover a bit more, but when he goes to college, it’s done. We expect that he’ll maintain at least a B average. If he can’t do that, then he comes home and goes to a community college.”

    I would suggest making sure he gets some college course experience before going to college, if at all possible.


  8. Back from Ireland. My daughter now wants to attend university in Belfast. Personally, I would have preferred Galway.

    We let the kids roam around Liverpool and Galway without us (we had less time in Belfast). Of course, we also had them on Find My Friends so we could see where they were. (T-Mobile has free international service.)

    In a few weeks we’re going to Lake George. My daughter will be given a choice of about 5 colleges between our house and there and we will do a college tour at one on our way back. I will probably be forbidden to speak, but that’s ok.


    1. Welcome back, Wendy!

      “My daughter now wants to attend university in Belfast.”

      Wouldn’t that have sounded ridiculous 20 years ago?

      “Of course, we also had them on Find My Friends so we could see where they were.”


      Remember to check the height of the various climbing walls–that’s what’s really important.

      Oh, and the quality of the dining halls.


      1. “Wouldn’t that have sounded ridiculous 20 years ago?”

        Yes, and no. It’s amazing how much tension still exists in Belfast. They still have walls up between Catholics and Protestants, and gates that close at night to keep the two groups separate.

        I did hear a great joke, though.

        What’s the Belfast calendar?
        January, February, March, March, March….

        There were Protestants trying to march and a big police presence in one neighborhood we drove through, in West Belfast, I think.


      2. My peeps come from Northern ireland. My great (maybe another great) grandfather came to Ellis Island from Enniskillen. Gave me red hair, my last name, and a recessive gene for alcoholism and depression.


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