Friday, April 15, 2011

Professional-class parenting

I have the usual feministic mixed feelings about Caitlin Flanagan's work, but I found myself agreeing with much of her article in the April issue of the Atlantic. Nominally, it's a response to Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother--or really, a response to the many responses to Amy Chua--but it winds up being mostly about the high-stakes college admissions process.

Flanagan argues that the real reason so many decent, thoughtful, upper-middle-class mothers are upset by Chua's book is that they simultaneously believe that their children should be less burdened and overscheduled, more imaginative and more free to follow their own passions--and that their creative intelligence and own-bliss-following should win them a spot at Princeton. They're therefore made frantic by the conflict between their beliefs about progressive parenting and the reality of college admissions. Ivy League schools have so many applicants that they don't have to choose between admitting quirky, creative kids (whose one or two great passions mean their report cards are a little patchy) and admitting overscheduled, super-achieving automatons. Princeton could fill an entire entering class with superachievers who are also quirky and creative and passionate.

Now, I haven't read Chua's book and I don't have children, but Flanagan's analysis rings true with what I hear and see around me in the debate about top-tier colleges and universities: admission to such schools is seen either as a real and significant judgment on an adolescent's intelligence and abilities--or as a process that rewards only the dull and the driven, who spend long hours coloring, furiously, within the lines. In my experience, neither is true--or maybe both are, but to a much more limited degree than either the Ivy League's obsessives or its detractors suppose.

I'm therefore supportive of Flanagan's proposal that those parents who really care about their children's individual passions and intelligence adopt what she calls "The Rutgers Solution" (where "Rutgers" = the flagship state school of your choice):
If you make the decision--and tell your child about it early on--that you totally support her, you're wildly engaged with her intellectual pursuits, but you will not pay for her to attend any college except Rutgers, everything will fall into place. She'll take AP calculus if she's excited by the challenge, max out at trig if not.
Now, Flanagan doesn't seem to be serious about this proposal; she's just making the rhetorical point that upper-middle-class parents in certain areas of the country, like the NYC 'burbs, would never seriously encourage their kids to drop AP classes or enforce their bedtimes--thus solving the problem of stress and burnout--because even as they bemoan the academic rat race they would also consider sending their kids to Rutgers a sign of their failure.

But I think parents might benefit from taking her proposal seriously, at least with some caveats: it strikes me as unnecessarily limiting to tell a child that you'd only pay for her to attend a local university--some of us were motivated precisely by the idea that we might go someplace we'd never have to see any of our high school classmates again--and it's not the child's ambitions that are really the problem anyway; teenagers drive themselves hard either because they genuinely enjoy the work they're doing (and/or desire its end result), or because they've erroneously been led to believe that they will only be happy and successful in life if they attend one of approximately 15 different colleges.

So rather than saying, "We'll only pay for you to go to college if you go to Rutgers," say, "We expect you to go to college, and if you work hard, you'll get into Rutgers." And then see who your child is, and what she can do, and recalibrate. If the kid has other ambitions, she can bring up other colleges on her own (or not). If the kid is having a hard time, tell her about all the other academic and life options available.

This is more or less what my own parents did. They attended every academic and extra-curricular event I was involved in, and they were hugely affirmative about my accomplishments, but they never suggested that there were better colleges than the local flagship; other options simply weren't on their radar. Once I started looking at fancier schools they got interested and involved--but I still never had the impression that they cared (in any neurotic personal way) where I wound up. They were equally cool with my brother's decision not to go to college right after high school; they were happy about and interested in his high-tech job, and equally happy and interested when, a few years later, he applied and went away to college.

In the end, then, Flanagan's essay is a little incoherent; she takes, as always, too much glee in exposing what she sees as the hypocrisy or limited self-knowledge of "professional class parents," seemingly more interested in flagellating than in reassuring them, even though her essay could provide cause for reassurance. Toward the end of the article she notes that rejection from an Ivy League school is no great tragedy, since there are lots of colleges and universities out there, full of good teachers and smart, interesting students. However, she doesn't conclude on that note, but on this one:
most children today can't have it both ways: they can't have a fun, low-stress childhood and also an Ivy League education. This is what [Amy Chua] understood early on--as the good mothers are about to learn, when the heartbreaking e-mails and letters from the top colleges go out this month--that life is a series of choices, each with its own rewards and consequences. In a sense, that is the most unpalatable message of her book. . . that the world really doesn't lie before us like a land of dreams. At best--at the very best--it can only offer us choices between two good things, and as we grasp at one, we lose the other forever.
And all I can say to that is: give me a fucking break. This isn't a real double-bind, or at least not for any parent who is genuinely concerned about her child rather than the values or judgments of her fellow parents.


Renaissance Girl said...

Amen. My parents, like yours, were supportive and proud of whatever accomplishments, but never made me feel like they wouldn't be if I wound up in some other life. They didn't produce my ambition with emotional terrorism, nor did they get in its way. And you know, I think this is one of the big reasons why my parents are now among my best friends. They've just always let me know that they liked me (aside from love), and trusted me to find a path that was suited to my personality. That's what I want my boys to feel from me.

FLG said...

Loose the opportunity forever?

Some people fail out of college spectacularly, but graduate from Georgetown.

'nora said...

I wish the Caitlin Flanagans and Any Chuas of the world would stop forcing us to frame academic success in terms of the Ivy League. It's such a narrow definition of 'academic achievement.' I didn't go to an Ivy League school, but I still got a very good education (including really top-flight graduate studies) and am by most standards a successful professional adult. Maybe it's just me, but I tend to think that "successful adult" is a better long-term goal for one's children than "Ivy League acceptance letter." Or is that just my plebeian showing?

Flavia said...

FLG: exactly. The close of Flanagan's essay reveals how little distance she actually has from the people she's ostensibly satirizing: she herself believes in the significance and finality of the judgments that get made about a person's abilities, intelligence, and potential when he's 17 or 18 years old. She's bought the same putrid bill of goods.

Her essay really isn't so different from all the others one sees in the NYT and similar venues about the college application process, where it's just assumed that it's hugely fraught and pressurized--and that every kid thinks his life will be over if he doesn't get into Harvard (or Dartmouth or Duke or Williams). Outside of certain enclaves, I just don't think this is the reality.

Certainly, it doesn't seem to have been the reality for most of the kids who actually get into and go to places like INRU, if my experience as a student, teacher, and (ahem!) alumni interviewer is anything to go by. (Although that could just reflect the mismatch between what parents, teenagers, and HS guidance counselors in Westchester or wherever think Ivy League schools want, and what they actually want.)

Historiann said...

What 'nora said. This is a great post--I can't stand Flanagan, and I don't really see this article as changing my mind about the value of her analysis. Thanks for sorting it all out so I don't have to, Flavia!

This is the wonderful thing about living in the West. People are extremely pleased and proud for having children who attend and graduate from Baa Ram U. and Flagship U. here in Colorado. While sometimes I wish the culture here encouraged students to look across state lines a little more often when contemplating college, I'm extremely happy and relieved not to have to deal with parents like those of the upper-middle class in the BosWash corridor. (Even here there are lots of children who live in the backs of minivans on fast food as they're shuttled from practice to practice to game, etc.)

Just one more thought: my husband and I arguably attended colleges we couldn't get into today because we're Gen X Baby Busters who started college in 1984 and 1986, when even extremely elite colleges and unis were worried about filling their freshman classes. They had expanded to such a capacity to accomodate the Baby Boom that they were falling all over themselves to fill up by the later 1980s. What I've heard and read so far is that this year is probably another new high for applicants to college, so children looking to apply in 10-15 years may be lucky like us and benefit from some slack in the system.

Susan said...

What 'nora said. I had an uncle who wouldn't pay for his son's college because his son didn't get into Harvard. (My cousin worked on that one!) Even as a kid I thought that was nuts.

I've found the transition to the west, where people take good public land grant universities for granted very refreshing. And the older I get, the more people I meet who have succeeded even though (!)they did NOT go to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton.

Flavia said...

Historiann & Susan: I think you're both right that the west (where I myself grew up) is different. For one thing, there are fewer colleges and universities, and academic prestige and athletic prowess often blur into each other to such a degree that locals feel ownership over institutions to which they have no personal connection.

In my hometown, which has a very good public school district, education and academic success were highly valued, but not in a status-conscious way; college admissions just wasn't about the things it seems to be about to some Eastern parents. People knew that Stanford was harder to get into than UW, and certainly were proud of or impressed by the kids who got in--but ultimately the two schools were perceived as much more similar than different, and getting into either was a cause for pride.

And really: I think most of the country is "western" in this way. Even in the Boston-D.C. corridor, we're still talking about pockets: the cities themselves and the suburbs immediately around them. Go more than a couple of hours away, and the "professional-class parents" are likely to be focused on UMass, UBuffalo, and Penn State.

Anonymous said...

I think what a lot of people miss is that tiger mothering does not guarantee the children will get into an Ivy League school either. Just because one of Amy's children got into Harvard does not tell us that all of her actual or potential children will (or would). It also happens to be that case that not everyone who gets into an Ivy League school has either worked all their life to get there, or is guaranteed success (by any definition) when they graduate. And, by the way, I did graduate Rutgers (the actual Rutgers) and then went to an Ivy League grad school.