Rich Kid Problems

While Jonah has a whole lot more options and opportunities than I did, and certainly more than my parents and most other college students, there is also something deeply unhealthy and sucky about his situation.

We made the decision a while back that we would invest heavily in his education before college. That meant that we moved to an upper middle class community, when he was in middle school. We bought an over-priced house with a 30-year mortgage, rather than staying put and setting up a 529 for him. We didn’t have enough money for both.

We figured that it was better for him to have peers who were all college bound, educated by teachers that were well compensated, and have the plenty of after school activities. If he had a solid foundation, we thought, there would be more college options. In hindsight, I’m not sure that we chose well.

While his teachers for the most part were adequate and well compensated (the median salary for teachers in our school district is $95,000), they are currently distracted by a labor dispute over their growing contributions in their paychecks to their health care plan and a $5 co-pay on doctor’s visits. They are on a work slowdown and haven’t been available for questions or extra help after school hours. They might strike this fall and refuse to write college recommendations for the kids.

The competition is intense. The kids in the advanced classes regularly put in all nighters. Five hours of nightly homework combined with three hour sports practices, makes for some very sleepy teenagers. The PTAs has brought in speakers to talk about managing stress, including Madeline Levine, who wrote about the high rates of depression and anxiety and other mental illnesses in upper middle class communities in her book, The Price of Privilege.

And within these communities, there are big divisions between the rich and everyone else. The rich buy $100 per hour tutors for their kids. The waiting room at the Kumon office is packed with parents gossiping about little 1.1s and 1.2s on the market. (Translation — 1.1 million dollar houses.) They send their kids to summer educational enrichment camps, pull strings with their buddies to set up exciting internships at Wall Street firms, and fly the kids to overseas do-good missions that look good on the college application.

With all this intensity and competition and support, it’s hard to get A’s. Would it have been better to keep Jonah in a less competitive school district, where the 4.0 GPA would have come easier? The big fish in the small pond? Hard to know.

The biggest toll of this environment is that kids don’t have the time to figure out to develop their own interests. Teenagers need time to squander. It’s only through squandering time that they figure out what they like, what they are good at. They need time to figure out what music they like, to develop inside jokes with friends, to explore the woods behind the house.

But truly, this is a poor, little rich kid talk. Jonah doesn’t have to miss school to watch younger siblings. He always knows that there will be dinner on the table. He’ll go a college. And going to a college, having little debt, and graduating in four years is really all that matters. It puts him miles ahead of most kids in this country.

Almost any discussion about college involves a small subset of elite Americans, unless you’re talking about community college, food pantries, and on campus daycare. I think it’s really important to tell our kids that fact over and over. And it’s important to tell ourselves that fact.

We’re lucky.

25 thoughts on “Rich Kid Problems

  1. going to a college, having little debt, and graduating in four years is really all that matters.

    I absolutely agree–though we weren’t able to make that dream entirely a reality with our oldest, Megan, who passed over several much more affordable options to partake of the full college experience at a big state school (KU, in her case). We were torn between discouraging her and the likely 40K debt price tag she’ll have to carry, and trusting that, after reviewing all the options, she was making an informed decision. Here’s hoping our younger kids will take the free tuition I can offer them, even if it does mean sticking close. (We didn’t even consider floating the hard-core college scholarship competition rat-race with her; for better or worse, Megan inherited my relative lack of ambition. We’ll see how the others turn out…) Anyway, you guys have your heads screwed on straight; I’m sure all will work out well for Jonah in the end.

  2. I’m sure it will turn out well for Jonah. He has the best support possible–engaged, caring parents who are able to navigate the system.

    Your house will retain its value better than houses in other districts. Teachers are always distracted by something. I don’t think there’s been a year in our affluent school district when the teachers haven’t been up in arms about something.

    In our district, it seems there are kids who kill themselves, and kids who are more relaxed about the process. Much of the time, they end up at the same college. All the tutoring and Kumon, etc. seems to peter out in the end. Perhaps it’s dragged down by the cumulative effects of sleeplessness.

    It’s really, really hard to resist the impulse to Keep Up With the Joneses, i.e. the helicopter parents. Much of the time, though, I have the impression that admissions officers really are able to gauge the difference between genuine engagement and enthusiasm and Bought ‘N Paid for engagement and enthusiasm.

    If you want to amuse yourself, you can check out Admissions Problems on Tumblr and Twitter. It puts things in perspective.

  3. Eldest had some insightful comments on the intensive track (IB) that she bailed on in her third year of high school: they were teaching the students how to cut corners and pretend more than really learn. Huge piles of work assigned, huge amounts of sleep deprivation experiences, huge amounts of work left undone while students pretended to be on top of it all. We were glad to get her out of that but we couldn’t get her out of stressful situations: so much of higher education plays on those same unreal expectations.

  4. I will make sure I either have my son (freshman in high school next year) read this post or I’ll read parts to him. But he already knows he’s lucky. WAY too lucky because he’s got grandparents (my in-laws) who are helping him see the world (trip to South Africa at 10 years old, last year, Egypt, Jordan, Israel + Switzerland & Germany). What worries me is that his (private, expensive) high school education won’t be very strong, but at least it will be in a small, close-knit school/community and I’m hoping he will have great extra-curricular experiences traveling with the musical groups (orchestra/choir/band).

    My biggest worry, however — which may be unwarranted, I’m just a neurotic, stressed out person in general — is that I never went to high school or college in this country and, thus, may be ill-prepared to help him out and guide him. He actually wants to go to the state university where I work and live with me there — we would get an apartment there. Too bad it’s EXTREMELY selective, so he’s got to excel academically in high school. He’s up to the challenge, though. I’ll get back to you in three years how it’s turned out!🙂 (His other options would be to go where his dad teaches, though he’s not too interested — the students are not that great there; or to the other state university two hours down the road who may be more aligned with his geeky engineering interests, but he wants to live at home — I think we’ve succeeded in raising him to be very Brazilian in this respect — we live at home during college as much as possible in Brazil).

    In any case, I am REALLY interested in how it’s going to be for Jonah and in reading everything you’re sharing here. Thanks for sharing!!

  5. You know, flying kids overseas to do service missions really doesn’t look good to colleges. A child might learn something in the process that might impress elite colleges, but most don’t.

    Having high levels of achievement does impress the elite colleges, and, yes, they normalize the achievement for the opportunities the kid has had (so, high opportunity school -> must achieve even higher levels of achievement).

    As you point out, it is still possible to get an excellent education in this country without having to make it into the elite colleges and some might actually do better with the opportunities they have elsewhere.

    My kid is enmeshed in a circle where the highest levels of achievement are fairly common (I can count 4 national level competitors in a variety of areas in the fairly close social circle, and that’s just the ones I know about). So, sometimes the pressure can be extreme, not just to get into college in place where your success in the competition will be marked, but to achieve something of significance, and to start doing it when you are 15. But I say many of the same things you are telling J — there are very few areas of achievement in which one has to be selected at 15 (at least in this country). There will still be opportunities to do pretty much everything she wants to do (we’ve ruled out ballet dancer at this point, but I think that’s OK with everyone). And, you can have a good life without achievement at the level she imagines now (though I haven’t really convinced her of that yet — maybe you are doing better with your children).

    My rule, and I do enforce this one, is to not do anything because you think it will help you get into an elite college. That’s like worrying about the numbers you pick in the powerball lottery — a waste of time.

    1. bj said:

      “My rule, and I do enforce this one, is to not do anything because you think it will help you get into an elite college.”

      My older daughter, who is not Miss Extracurricular, is going to be running a ukulele club in the fall. I’m really excited, as I think it will be great for her college application if she sticks with it. I try not to mention that much, though, as daughter thinks that incredibly SORDID as a motivation to do an extracurricular activity. She also does Latin club.

      She still wants to go to (blessedly inexpensive) Hometown U. *fingers crossed*

      I wonder if apt11d is going to evolve into being a college admissions blog? I wouldn’t mind that at all.

      1. MH said:

        “How much ambient ukulele music does that involve?”

        Depends how many people show up and what the acoustics are like. Potentially A LOT.

        For purposes of comparison, here are a couple hundred members of the Austin Ukulele Society doing Lady Gaga’s Edge of Glory:

        I kind of want to get her playing something like this (Spanish baroque guitar adapted for ukulele):

        She’s already playing this (it’s a renaissance piece from the book From Lute to Uke):

        I signed her up for guitar two years ago and I didn’t expect it to go in the direction it has…No complaints, but there have been a lot of surprises!

        I’m going to have her using her little brother as a music teaching guinea pig this summer, and we’re looking at storing the following for the club:

        –half a dozen ukuleles (we had three already and we just ordered three more–fortunately it’s an inexpensive instrument)
        –half a dozen soft cases (probably need 3+ more)
        –half a dozen clip-on tuners (a friend has promised to send me some)
        –half a dozen books

        That may or may not do the job, but it will have to do.

        I’m hoping that she can use the teacher version of “21 Songs in 6 Days,” because it comes with a video teaching component, which is swell.

        Do I sound like I’ve joined a cult?

        On the bright side, it’s impossible to Tiger Mom ukulele with a straight face, so I haven’t been tempted to threaten to burn stuffed animals…

      2. Holy cow!

        I keep getting blind-sided by these videos posting in comment boxes!

        Sorry for the huge post–I only expected the videos to show up as links.

      3. It’s bad enough that people around here keep singing bits of Hamilton. I don’t think I could handle a ukulele.

      4. MH said:

        “It’s bad enough that people around here keep singing bits of Hamilton. I don’t think I could handle a ukulele.”

        I was just doing a search on youtube for “Hamilton on ukulele.” *shudder* That was terrible–and so many of them. I’m not going to link anything.

        This is much better, though!

      5. @AmyP, I seem to remember being one of the posters encouraging you to let your daughter follow her musical curiosity. How time flies!

        I’ve found my kids are more interested in activities if I keep out of it. They learn more from the catastrophic failures–no one shows up to practice, the new ukulele players get seduced by the rival accordion club, or they find that they can’t get practice space in their budget, etc.

        So try not to be too excited. Don’t make her stick with the ukulele if she decides she’d rather join Future Farmers of America. I don’t think you would be Tiger Mom, but I’ve seen too many kids gritting their teeth to get through the last years of high school with a list of activities which were really interesting in middle school. It’s not a happy sight.

      6. Cranberry said:

        “@AmyP, I seem to remember being one of the posters encouraging you to let your daughter follow her musical curiosity. How time flies!”

        I know! It has been a pretty big commitment finding $100 a month for lessons (plus other odds and ends), but she’s come very far in just two years.

        We’re hoping to do this in a few years (I’ll do just the Alaska part):

        http://www.cheemaisel.com/ukulele-cruise/

        “I’ve found my kids are more interested in activities if I keep out of it. They learn more from the catastrophic failures–no one shows up to practice, the new ukulele players get seduced by the rival accordion club, or they find that they can’t get practice space in their budget, etc.”

        I think we’ll probably be somewhat hands-on, at first, and then hand off. Big Girl herself suggested that my husband could run the teaching video the first time or two and then she could figure out how to do it.

        My husband and I do have a lot of event-planning experience, so you’re right that it will be hard to resist backseat driving.

        She’s also going to be in a twice-weekly instrumental music class this fall (a bunch of kids on other instruments), so between that, her weekly lesson, home practice, and a monthly ukulele club, she’s going to be in music up to her neck.

        “So try not to be too excited. Don’t make her stick with the ukulele if she decides she’d rather join Future Farmers of America. I don’t think you would be Tiger Mom, but I’ve seen too many kids gritting their teeth to get through the last years of high school with a list of activities which were really interesting in middle school. It’s not a happy sight.”

        Oh dear!

        I mostly just need her to be doing SOMETHING during high school. Wendy has really spooked me with her tales of her daughter losing non-Instagram interests during high school.

  6. L– You might be surprised at how much less your 11 year old is interested in living with you for the rest of his life, or even through college, when he’s thirteen (or even twelve).

  7. My almost-14-year-old daughter wants to go to school here (she’d be able to walk to class). But a lot could change in three or four years…

  8. Yes, our daughter did not want to go away to boarding school, as many children in her milieu do, but she was definitely ready to go away to college. Indeed, she declined to apply to any college in New York, lest her parents come and visit her too readily.

  9. Read this yesterday, been thinking about it a lot. Wasn’t sure why, but then it hit me today – we made the exact opposite choice as you. We chose a house in average school district and are socking money into the 529. Not based on any real principled reason – more that my husband and I both work at the same university, and the good schools are really up in the Boston neck of the woods. That would have given us both a really long commute, which we figured (rightly) would be untenable once the boys got involved in activities.

    That having been said, I am just as nervous about you about the choice we made. I look at the college choices of the graduating class at our high school, and I think – really? that’s it? And I am STILL worried about how we’re going to afford this whole shebang. Maybe it’s poor little rich kids talk or just generally a reflection of the stress and worry of upper middle class parents. Again, totally #firstworldproblems, but there is a general sense of anxiety below the 1% about our children slipping down the economic rung. I think all of us are worried about whether we’re making the right choices – regardless of what choices we made.

  10. Everyone, and I mean pretty much everyone, is worried about their kids. I know of billionaires who are worried about their kids –not because they think they’re kids are going to be drug addicts, but because they’re worried their kids won’t reach their full potential, and that it will be because they, as parents, didn’t provide something their kids needed. It’s the personal aspect of it — that they worry that they are somehow failing in providing for their kids that strikes me. It’s bizarre. I think that people who aren’t billionaires do have a real concern that their children will “slip” on the economic ladder and worry about the tournament economy where it looks like only a few will succeed. But if even the billionaires worry (do they worry because they think they’re kids won’t be billionaires? 100 millionaires isn’t good enough? Do they worry about dynastic wealth? I don’t know). I think there’s something more happening. I think it might be the much greater access to information — knowing what others have and/or something about the demands we put on ourselves as parents. .

    1. bj said:

      “I know of billionaires who are worried about their kids –not because they think they’re kids are going to be drug addicts, but because they’re worried their kids won’t reach their full potential, and that it will be because they, as parents, didn’t provide something their kids needed.”

      That’s somewhat understandable. Most of us have perfectly reasonable excuses why we don’t provide our kids X, Y or Z (we can’t afford it/it’s not feasible), but if you’re a billionaire, pretty much everything is affordable or feasible. So there are way more choices, and hence more anxiety.

  11. I don’t know how billionaires feel (except that mostly they feel just like the rest of us), but the 1% starts with household income of about $400,000. There are lots of law firm partners and bank senior vice presidents who worry a lot about how their children will slip down the economic ladder (not to the point of being on welfare, but to the point that they won’t be able to live in NYC, or whatever).

    1. To be included in the top 1% in this country you have to have at least $8 million in wealth. (Probably closer to $20 million, but wealth measurements are hard to do.)

      Merely having $400,000 income in one year won’t put you in that exclusive percentile.

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