I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success while at the same time applying to kindergartens for Liko. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.
The message of Gladwell’s book is simple: Success is the product of environment plus practice plus accidents of birth; intrinsic talent is a factor—mostly because it allows a person to take advantage of whatever opportunities arise—but not the most important one, not even close.
In one chapter, Gladwell explores a classic study by sociologist Annette Lareau of childrearing in working-class with middle- and upper-class homes (“less-educated” and “more-educated” might be a better characterization). By following twelve families closely for long periods of time, Lareau found that “there were two parenting ‘philosophies,' and they divided almost perfectly along class lines.”
The working-class parents followed a path of what Lareau calls “natural growth”—meaning that children are generally left to their own devices, and parents did not attempt to manage their education. This, writes Lareau, produced children who were more independent and better behaved, but also (paradoxically?) more passive, especially in the face of authority. (This is just a thumbnail; you'll need to read Gladwell's book or Lareau's study for details.)
By contrast, the educated parents adapted a policy of “concerted cultivation.” They actively identified weaknesses to correct and strengths to develop in their children; heavily scheduled their time with classes in music, art, etc.; and intensively managed their formal education.
Most importantly for Gladwell’s purposes, these parents taught their children how to ask questions, interact with authority figures in ways that asserted some degree of control, and express opinions. This produces a sense of entitlement, which Lareau neutrally defines as the ability to act as though they had a right to pursue their individual interests and speak up for themselves in institutional settings.
These observations feel true to my experience. I’ve heard teacher-friends describe similar patterns, I’ve seen it in my own family, and I’m seeing it play out in the murderous world of applying for kindergarten in San Francisco, which is like an arms race.
One example: Liko attends a preschool that is heavily slanted toward educated middle- and upper-class parents. (Education aside, we are not those parents, by the way; Liko wouldn’t go there if my wife hadn’t worked at the school and if we weren’t receiving financial aid. Those were opportunities of which we took advantage.)
Concerted cultivation is institutionalized: teachers report weekly on the kid’s activities (with photos!), there are regular parent-teacher meetings tracking the child’s development; school time is scheduled with art, gym, and so on; and it is normal for the kids (including Liko) to go from school to after-school enrichment classes.
This isn’t the case in all preschools. I have a friend who works as a teacher at a preschool that caters to low-income families. There, says my friend, there is no parent involvement, no reporting, very little structure, and no enrichment. The parents drop the kids off, they play for much of the day, and the parents pick them up. This is more akin to daycare, not preschool, which is the more common arrangement for working parents.
Put aside, for the moment, moral and political judgments, and look at the situation coldly. Guess which group is going to be better prepared to enter kindergarten? (I'm not saying that your kid will never get into Harvard if she doesn't attend a good preschool; I'm saying that every educational opportunity increases the likelihood of advancement.)
In addition, the kids at Liko’s preschool are sorted into classes by birth date, so that in Liko’s class most are born in the summer. And here, we’ve discovered something interesting: It appears that most of the kids, especially the boys, are not going to kindergarten next year. They’ll attend pre-K and enter kindergarten when they are six.
Why? Because it will give them a developmental advantage in both academics and athletics. Holding your child back once entailed a stigma; no more. Now, it’s a status symbol.
Are we, Liko’s parents, above all this? Of course not. We feel intense pressure to follow the norms that we see around us, and we are also considering sending Liko to kindergarten when he is six—mostly because I shudder to think of Liko, down the road, sharing a school locker room with boys who are up to a year older than he is. Our decision will be based on a) whether or not he gets into a good school next year; and b) where his teachers say he stands developmentally.
You might think this educational arms race would actually come to nothing, just a lot of overeducated “helicopter parents” wasting their time and turning their kids into neurotic whiners. You can probably point to lots of people, perhaps even yourself, whose parents followed the “natural growth” path and “turned out just fine.”
But one of the interesting things about Gladwell’s book is how decisive concerted cultivation seems to be when it comes to later success in life; through many examples, Gladwell shows how the difference between the successful and not-successful is early cultivation and opportunity. This is confirmed by quite a bit of research, and it’s how social class plays out in America.
My own upbringing was a transitional one from working to middle class, with elements of both natural growth and concerted cultivation. I never went to preschool and time in my childhood was never all that structured. As I approached adolescence and we moved to progressively larger school systems, opportunities began to appear.
At one point I was tested as part of a program called the Midwest Talent Search, which ultimately led to me being able to attend a special summer writing program at Northwestern University. I remember that period as revelatory; for the first time, I was among kids my age who were interested in books and ideas, and I had sympathetic teachers. I’m grateful for that little sliver of freedom and exploration, which decisively shaped my life, but I also think that I would have benefited from having had more opportunities like it.
Of course, one can reject the very concept of “success,” and, indeed, there is a parental counterculture that simply opts out of the arms race, sometimes through homeschooling; we know some folks who are following this path. It’s one I’m reluctant to embrace.
It’s plausible to me that a parent could replicate the advantages that children get through educational institutions—for example, exposing kids to cultural diversity through participation in church activities. But my real problem with homeschooling as a movement is that it’s not a solution to inequality of opportunity in our society. In fact, I’d wager that homeschooling, if implemented on a wider scale, would dramatically exacerbate inequalities. (It’s worth noting that the superrich have always homeschooled; an acquaintance of mine makes her living as a private tutor for one such family, a name you’ve heard.)
And so I am disinclined, as a parent, to apologize for participating in the system and taking advantage of whatever opportunities come my son’s way. As I see it, the problem is not that parents are pursuing what is best for their kids on the terms our society offers. Instead, the problem is with a system that so unevenly distributes opportunity.
It doesn’t have to be this way: There are countries all over the world where kids all receive the same early childhood education, and parents’ education and income levels are much less important in shaping the life chances of their children. Believe it or not, the U.S. actually ranks quite low in social mobility, when compared to Canada and Western Europe.
Gladwell’s book is not a story about the triumph of middle-class values, nor is about how wonderfully accomplished wealthy people are. Instead, his story of success is a story of luck. We in America have fooled ourselves into believing the rich deserve everything they have. And if you are not Bill Gates, says a certain strain of American thinking, you are a failure.
No: As Outliers makes clear, Bill Gates (one of Gladwell’s case studies) is just a lucky bastard. Talented, sure—but no more talented than many of the people who work for him. My grandfather had somewhat less in the way of luck; his success consisted of holding the same stable job for 40 years and putting food on the table every day. His children never starved: That’s success. We have to measure our lives against the opportunities we have been given. And the only moral response to the absence of luck is compassion, toward oneself and others.
On the other hand, feeling guilty about one’s privilege is not helpful; your guilty feelings don’t make one damn bit of difference for low-income families. To really make a difference, middle- and upper-income parents need to pay their fair share of taxes and vote for politicians who are going to allocate funds to early childhood education, health care, and programs that help all kids fulfill their potential. I am writing this on the eve of inauguration day: Let’s hope President Obama leads the way.