Last weekend, The New York Times online ran "No Rich Child Left Behind" -- an opinion piece by a Stanford professor of education and sociology. In it, Sean Reardon bemoans the fact that over the last few decades, "differences in educational success between high- and lower-income students have grown substantially."
Reardon declares the widening academic gap is because "rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students." He argues that, in turn, is because the rich are spending more resources on their children's "educational success." He goes on to make the predictable lefty argument that the government should "invest much more heavily as a society in our children’s educational opportunities from the day they are born." In other words, society should be trying to replicate the educational experiences of affluent children.
But according to some experts, all is not necessarily rosy on the side of the socio-economic spectrum Reardon implicitly points to as a model. Psychologist Madeline Levine has argued that the "ends" of today's affluent parenting -- good grades, high test scores, top college admissions -- are creating a generation of unhappy, stressed out, uncreative, entitled, "empty" children who are not well-positioned to be creative thinkers or positive contributors to society. Some of the pathologies created by high-pressure education and parenting are also documented in the popular film "Race to Nowhere."
What seems to underlie both Reardon's prescriptions and the affluent "high stakes" education/parenting regime he hopes to replicate is a presumption that children are essentially like cakes. Mix the right "ingredients" -- enough money, a certain kind of preschool program, a certain type of parental involvement, certain opportunities -- and voila! The result? "Smart" children performing at a high academic level, which in turn yields "success," defined as a high income and prestige.
Every child should have the opportunity to fulfill his or her own unique destiny (the "right to rise" is at the heart of the American dream, and it's one reason I believe in school choice). But this "right ingredients/right result" approach to child rearing -- whether directed to the rich or the poor -- seems to miss a lot, too. Certainly, Reardon overlooks some obvious alternatives to his theory about the reasons for disparate performance, including genetic inheritance and assortive marriage.
Likewise, on the affluent side, it seems that too many parents think we can control the outcome for our children if we just do the right things: Expose them to every possible activity, help them find their "passion," push them to become "fabulous" at something. That's the way they'll become a "success."
Certainly, since the beginning of time, involved and caring parents have always wanted the best for their children. But the intense parental monitoring and involvement, along with the insane pressures on children documented by Levine and others, are something new.
It's almost as though we think we're gods. We flatter ourselves that we can control our children's destinies (regardless of their IQ's, particular forms of intelligence, interests, strengths & weaknesses, even chance) as long as we (parents or government in loco parentis) "do" everything right: Combine the right ingredients in the right order to get a perfect "child cake." All of a sudden, we seem to be clinging to a false but comforting illusion that child-rearing can be reduced to a formula -- it's a science, not an art.
Is this a symptom of a culture in which God has been pushed to the margins? In other words, with fewer of us actively aware that He ultimately is in control, are we engaged in a futile attempt to establish ourselves as the arbiters of our children's destinies?