Competitive Parenting

August 30, 2006

Betsy’s post about language acquisition got me thinking: Is competitive parenting bad? By “competitive,” I mean the folks who potty-train their children early or bust out the flashcards when their children are still infants.

In my mind, yes and no. I may even have some competitive juices as I did read to Ari when he was an infant and started my preschool hunt when he was a mere three months of age.  

But I’d like to think I am nowhere near as obnoxious as the moms mentioned in a recent Parents’ Press newspaper article about the sport that has become finding an exclusive private kindergarten in San Francisco. “San Francisco itself is as competitive as any place in the U.S. — except New York City, where kindergarten applicants take a standardized I.Q. test and potential donations to a private school only count ‘if you have more money than God,'” writer Alan Eisenstock said.

According to Eisenstock, who also penned the aptly named “Kindergarten Wars: The Battle to Get into America’s Best Private Schools,” most San Francisco parents who apply to private schools begin their search shortly after their children are born and many do not get onto their first choice school, or even their second or third. Boo hoo!

Even worst, this tidbit on what drives these parents had me shaking my head: There is a link between where children go to kindergarten and whether they will attend an Ivy League university 13 years later. Out of the 30 kindergarten to 12th grade schools that boasted the most Ivy League admittances, 29 were elite private schools, Eisenstock said.

But, here’s another crucial piece of information lost on these parents: Due to their children’s lack of survival skills, there has been a “boomerang effect” in recent years, in which Ivy Leaguers aren’t scoring those top firm jobs, and are instead returning to bunk with mom and dad.

“Getting into an Ivy League college does not come with a guarantee that your child is going to be a successful human being,” an educational consultant said. “He gets into Harvard — great. And then what? He’s going to come home. They do. And since you’ve enabled your child every step of the way, he doesn’t realize that he now has to make a living, he has to make a life.”

That said, based on my short teaching experience, some competitive parenting tactics — like reading to your baby — really go a long way on the academic front. And no, I don’t read to Ari so that he can get into Harvard.

I always knew I would read books to my infant since I was a 19-year-old team member of an AmeriCorps literacy program called Jumpstart. As Jumpstart “team members,” we went into Boston inner city preschools and Head Start programs and worked one-on-one with an “at-risk” child on reading and other academic projects. Because I speak Spanish, many of my students were Latinos who did not speak English, although they did not have any skills to read and write in Spanish.

Through Jumpstart, I took early childhood development courses, which had a profound effect on my parenting today. It was through those classes that I read the science surrounding breastfeeding. I learned about the Mozart Effect. Most importantly, I learned that children between the ages of 0 and 3 have an uncanny ability to learn foreign languages, to play an instrument — basically to learn anything you want them to. The brain grows faster at this stage than any other time in a child’s life.

And as I witnessed firsthand in Boston, there are benefits to this one-on-one interaction with small children — it isn’t some crazy hippie-dippie thing. Here in Berkeley where it isn’t uncommon to see articulate and literate three-year-olds, the kids around me are in stark contrast to my (older) Jumpstart students who had very little parental involvement at home. Many of them came from broken homes and the mothers were too young — teenagers — or, too overworked to parent. Their children had drawn out looks on their faces and serious behavioral issues: They grunted and yelled because they could not express themselves. While they loved television and could name all the latest popular characters, even at five-years-old some of them hated to read. “Books are boring!” one of my Jumpstart students yelled while she stomped on the book I bought her.

This girl had zero attention span for anything. I shuddered at how she could possibly succeed in school. The one group of kids who stood out — because they didn’t give me a hard time — were the Vietnamese students. They spoke no English — hence why they were in the program — but they ate up everything we served them: books, math drills, art projects. A big difference between them and other students though: They had an adult, most likely a grandparent, pick them up every day after school. This was surprising because it wasn’t uncommon for us see older siblings — preteens and teens — on foot or on bike to pick up the kids. That just wasn’t the case with the Vietnamese families.

After two years, I left the program grateful for the experience — after all, I incorporated what I learned in my own parenting. But also discouraged. Contrary to what Charles Yang or anyone says, parents have an unbelievable amount of power over their children’s academic futures. I often felt that our program was a mere blip to the overwhelming influence parents had at home, including their decision not to reinforce what their children learned in school. Or not to even talk to them, except to ask them what they wanted to see on television.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one marked by this experience. Six years later and three thousand miles away, I ran into a former Boston Jumpstart team leader. He enrolled his three-year-old daughter in the same bilingual preschool as Ari. It’s never too early to hit the books.