Parents and Privilege

Jonah is in the midst of high misery and despair that is Finals Week. He’s a smart kid with bad study skills, a cellphone of distractions, and a mediocre public school education. Sometimes just being smart is good enough for him. Sometimes those other issues bring him down.

This semester, he’s been trying out a new major, political science. He took Introduction to International Relations last semester and got a good grade without any help from me, so we were playing around with the idea of combining his interest with science with political science. So, he signed up for two more pol sci classes this semester. Turns out that I’ve taught both of those classes before.

As I’ve said, political sciences classes are pretty much the same from school to school, and haven’t changed much since my dad started teaching those classes back in the mid-1960s. Plato is always Plato. The powers of the presidency have been the same since FDR. So, when he called to share his review guide for the American final, I looked at it and told him what to study. I told him what the final essay question was probably going to be.

I spent some time worrying about whether I should be counseling him on his classes or how much I should edit his essays for political theory. In the end, I gave him as much as help as I would any student coming into a professor’s office hours. I wouldn’t write his introduction to his paper on MLK for him, but I did make the sentences clearer and told him when he had misunderstood the essay prompt. I certainly couldn’t go into the exam room and take his final exam for him. He had to do all the readings. He had to do all the memorization. His essays had to be his own work.

Still, I helped. And I worried that it might be wrong. What about all those kids in his classes who didn’t have parents with PhDs? Did he have an unfair advantage?

One of the concepts that he has to tackle in his theory exam tomorrow is the notion of fairness. The idea that all humans should start at the same place on the starting block and that the person who crosses the finish line first is the person with most talents and who put in the most effort. But it doesn’t really work that way, does it? My kid is starting a race about 200 yards ahead of the other students.

Ian has been doing really well with math. In the past couple of years, he’s gone from the lowest level of special ed math class to the medium level to a regular class. This never happens, and the public school doesn’t quite know what to do with him.

He’s in Algebra I right now, but he’s so far advanced that we hired a tutor to teach him Algebra II at our dining room table on Saturday mornings. I’m sure the school won’t let him skip a grade, so he’ll have to study Algebra II with the other kids next year, and I guess his tutor will keep going onto Trig or Calculus.

Again, Ian is advancing because of us. Yes, he has a talent and an incredible work ethic, but he’s getting this opportunity and bypassing the regular hoops that other kids have to deal with, because we can afford to make our rules.

It’s impossible to equalize parenting. Even if every child in the country attended the exact same school with the exact same curriculum and resources, the secret sauce of education — parents with time, money, and education — can never be equalized. I can’t stop helping my kids with their homework or showing up at their band concerts or reminding them that a paragraph can’t have twelve sentences. I stop myself from crossing a line that I’ve set for myself, and my kids certainly tell me to back off when I go too far, but I’m still there.

The elite high schools in New York City are in the midst of a rebellion, because only seven African-American kids were admitted to elite science schools for next fall. School admissions are based on the results of one standardized exam. Kids with parents who get them to the test prep classes are doing better than everyone else.

NYC schools are trying to figure out how to make the system more fair. Do they get rid of the test altogether? Do they create quota-system? Do they dismantle the whole system of elite high schools? And it’s all because of the parents and the test prep classes.

I don’t know the answer. But I do know that it’s impossible to tell a parent not to help. While I worry about equity, at the same time, I’m going to drill Jonah on the social contract in Rousseau, and I’m going to get Ian extra math help.

19 thoughts on “Parents and Privilege

  1. Many of the other students (like Miss Y81) are getting the same level of help as Jonah, at least if they want it. So I’m not sure the playing field is all that unlevel.

    As for the NYC schools, there’s no reason that poor black parents can’t take their children to the same test prep schools that the poor Asian parents patronize. It’s a matter of parental priorities, and I don’t see why we would want a social system that doesn’t reward parental involvement and sacrifice. You might even consider that any resulting inequality benefits the least well-off, by increasing total national wealth.


    1. But overall, are the families of the Asian students applying for the elite science schools in the same socioeconomic situation as the families of the African American students?


      1. So far as I know, yes. First generation immigrants working at nail salons and dry cleaners aren’t exactly rich. Crazy rich Asians either send their children to private school or live in the suburbs, the same as UMC white people (and UMC black people, for that matter).


  2. Interesting. My daughter is in her second semester at the local community college, and she has received no help.from me whatsoever. What the hell can I do? I’m two states away, working 60 hours a week, night shift. And I graduated from community college back in 1986, in a grittier, more working class community, so I don’t know that any help I could give would be worth a damn.

    Moreover, in real life, she isn’t going to have any help. In real life, people like her, and people like me, are considered to be the throwaways. That’s how the system is designed.

    “Inequality has always existed, so let’s close our eyes and pretend there hasn’t been an astronomical increase in it lo these past 30 years.” That’s pretty much how the comment section is going to roll.


    1. I’ve got a lot of students like lubbidu’s daughter at my regional state university, which has tried to set up all kinds of mechanisms to help students who are first-generation college students, and/or have parents who aren’t able to help. Some of them take advantage of things like success coaching, mentoring programs, advising, free study skills workshops, and office hours. I was thrilled this week to be able to give B-minuses as final grades to a couple of students who did this. I’m pretty sure without my help outside of class and, especially, the help of a grad student coach they would have both gotten Cs or possibly Ds.

      But it is sometimes very hard to convince students to take advantage of these things, especially office hours. In class I stress over and over, come by office hours, even if it’s just for 5 minutes; email me if you have questions; etc. Sometimes I require office hours visits just to get them in the door and make them aware that I’m a person who wants to help them. But it’s hard to convince some students that they are not “wasting your time.” The only students who come in regularly are already getting a B+ or above. Most of them know the system and understand that working with them is my job.

      Anyway, just know that there are places with people who are trying very hard not to treat students in this situation like throwaways. Not everyone at my university supports this kind of work, but most people do.


    2. lubiddu said,

      “Inequality has always existed, so let’s close our eyes and pretend there hasn’t been an astronomical increase in it lo these past 30 years.” That’s pretty much how the comment section is going to roll.”

      Apologies for not being caught up with the comment thread, but double-income families are a major driver of inequality.


    3. Welcome back lubbidu, and your reality check for the rest of us.

      Both Laura and I recognize that our kids are starting ahead of the starting blocks, and, when they stumble (or struggle) we’re right there to help them, even while we draw our lines about what kind of help is really help and what kind of “help” is cheating. We can’t equalize by taking our support away from our kids because we won’t and because not, say, helping Ian learn Algebra 2 helps no one else. (though we do need reminders when the help isn’t going to help them in the long run, even if it’s not cheating).

      But we can try our best to help the other kids, to give them what we can, and to support policies that might help. Laura does it when she goes to the school board meeting to argue for the kids in special education who don’t have political science PhDs to advocate for them individually.


  3. Parents are different. They have different goals for their children. Not every child given tutoring or support manages to thrive.

    !Not talking about our host below!

    Sometimes “support” really means “control,” and “living vicariously through children.” Lots of stage parents fall into this category. There are some very sad cases of kids who have interests radically different than their parents’. Trying to make your artist child into a businessman is not a recipe for happiness. Many social queens drive daughters to despair chasing social success through things like their daughters’ weight or sorority membership.


    1. Cranberry said,

      “Parents are different. They have different goals for their children. Not every child given tutoring or support manages to thrive.”


      My dad gave me a lot of math help (he has a master’s degree in math), and I think I generally wound up with As, but my last math course was college algebra trig in high school. Home tutoring (even a lot of home tutoring) didn’t turn me into a math whiz. On the other hand, my oldest is finishing up Introduction to Calculus with a 97 average, and neither husband or I is helping her at all, other than just inquiring as to whether she’s doing her homework. She’s also carrying a 97 in AP Physics 2. Husband and I can go literally months without having any contact at all with her school work. We also didn’t do any special SAT prep for her, aside from having her work through a sample test book, and she did a lot better than I did on the SAT. We’ve never hired a tutor.

      We were a lot more hands-on in the early school years (because we had to be), and I do make inquiries whenever I see a grade starting to dip, but I mostly just pay the kids for end-of-term grades, and that’s my biggest involvement. I pay $5 per grade 95-99 and $7 for 100+, as some teachers give extra credit. The big kids usually get somewhere between $35 and $40 each. (We instituted this after some kid talk about how 89 is a perfectly good grade.)

      “Sometimes “support” really means “control,” and “living vicariously through children.””

      Right. I have to confess to really enjoying our oldest’s high school career, but I wouldn’t say I’m controlling it. It’s just happening.


  4. Are there a lot of people telling UMC parents to stop aiding their children?

    As a person who grew up poor, with no family support, was actively discouraged by high school counselors (sexism in the 1970s was still a thing) and who fumbled through a year of college and then gave up, I ask UMC parents to recognize their unearned advantages and try to do something for people without them. When you work to make things more available at public school for your own child who needs accommodations and extra help, that is also good for the kids who don’t have anybody available/knowledgeable/capable to fight for them.


  5. Were our society less winner-takes-all, UMC parents would be less likely to help their children in these hands on, intensive ways well into adulthood. That’s the real issue: as things grow more inequitable, UMC parents grow more panicked at the thought that their children will fall out of their class, so they double down their support, which only widens the gap.

    I graduated high school in 1995 and I come from a well-educated family. My parents never once helped me with my high school work and certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of doing so when I was in college. And that was the normal course of things back then.

    So what’s changed in the intervening two to three decades? For today’s UMC parents, it’s comforting to assume it has always been this way but it really wasn’t like this in the near past. It doesn’t need to be this way in the future if we use public policy to compress the gap between the advantages and disadvantages.


  6. I’m mostly kind of lazy about this stuff, which appears to be fine because almost nobody likes me to explain stuff to there. There’s a gender dynamic, which is probably why Felicty Huffman is going to jail and William H. Macy isn’t.


  7. Laura said,

    “While I worry about equity, at the same time, I’m going to drill Jonah on the social contract in Rousseau, and I’m going to get Ian extra math help.”

    It would be super ironic if you gave him lots of hand-holding with regard to Marxism and gave him an unfair advantage…

    Marianne asks, “But overall, are the families of the Asian students applying for the elite science schools in the same socioeconomic situation as the families of the African American students?”

    Some friends of ours who are immigrants from Korea just got a kid into a very generous Ivy League school. I don’t know how they are doing now, but in the past they were as poor as church mice and the mom had a fairly menial job. But, the parents are well-educated and grandparents in the old country paid for private school up to 6th grade. So in that particular case, you have a mix of low income, high social capital. A lot of immigrants wind up working jobs that are not commensurate with their educational level. (You see this a lot among Eastern European immigrants to the US.)

    It could easily be the case that an NYC family like that has less income but more social capital than the families of black applicants.

    af writes, “But it’s hard to convince some students that they are not “wasting your time.””

    My daughter is UMC, but I have the hardest time persuading her to mention issues to teachers or believing that it’s worthwhile to talk to authority figures, even when she has a really good case. She believes that it’s a bad idea to make a request of teachers or administrators–as if that’s somehow going to make a situation worse.

    I find it mystifying, although I was probably exactly the same at her age (although I came from a much poorer home). I’m trying to get it across to her that they may well say yes if it’s a reasonable request, and if they say no, that’s not a big deal. But for her, it is a very big deal.

    As a middle aged lady who has been UMC for a while (but didn’t grow up that way), I have gotten a much better sense of what is possible when dealing with authority figures. (This issue comes up in Unequal Childhoods–non-middle class people struggling to deal appropriately with authority.)


    1. That was, come to think of it, a pretty big obstacle for me in graduate school.

      I was mostly frozen with awe with regard to professors, so it would not have occurred to me to talk to them outside of class, even though that would have been helpful.


  8. Reinforcing what Scantee says above, the more the rest of society turns into winner-take-all tournaments, the more the advantages of birth will tell.

    In regard to immigrants, given ICE and many local police forces, avoiding authority figures and official interactions as much as possible is a perfectly sensible approach. It may even be life-saving.


  9. Amy P: Double income families have been the norm for two generations. That isn’t the major driver of inequality. It’s the decline in real wages and purchasing power between the UMC and the working class majority. Not to mention the significant lowering of the tax burden to the UMC, while the tax burden on the working class has increased. See also: “The Dream Hoarders”.

    Re: “Unequal Childhoods”. Working class kids learn early on not to trust authority. We are treated much differently by authority than the UMC. Class is visible, just like sex and race.


    1. “Class is visible, just like sex and race.”

      In the US, teeth that aren’t perfectly straight is a big class signifier


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