Privatizing Childhood: Rich Parents Spend Ivy League Tuition Prices on Preschool and Billions on Luxury Baby Gear

The following is an excerpt from the new book Class War: The Privatization of Childhood by Megan Erickson (Verso Books, 2015): 


The truth about baby shoes is that no one needs them. Newborns don’t walk and they don’t skateboard, but today’s expectant parents can buy a miniature version of every niche adult shoe that ’s come to market in the past thirty years from Vans, Converse, Air Jordans, and Toms to shearling leopard print UGGs. Luxury retailer Stuart Weitzman offers gladiator sandals in gold leather with rhinestones in infant sizes for thirty-nine dollars a pair. J. Crew sells a tutu that costs more than the tasting menu at Jean Georges. The Bugaboo stroller—which is marketed as a “mobility concept” and is priced between $500 and $1,000 depending on the model—has become iconic baby “gear” after appearing in an episode of Sex and the City. In consumer culture, accessories are imbued with the power to express the personality of the owner or wearer, making us appear hip, countercultural, chic, nerdy, in on the joke, “socially conscious,” etc.—but never has the demand to endow kids with an identity been higher. The luxury baby market, which didn’t exist before the 1990s, now brings in $10.6 billion a year.

As children grow, affluent parents continue to spend more on learning experiences like sports lessons, country club membership fees, enrichment CDs, trips to children’s museums, and travel abroad. They compete to secure coveted spots in prestigious preschools—agonizing over whether to include the “PhD” when addressing thank you notes to admissions directors. It is not uncommon for a well-regarded school on New York City’s wealthy Upper East Side to receive several hundred applications for ten or fifteen open seats, even as tuition rises to be on par with that at private colleges. New York City’s celebrated Dalton School, for example, offers a well-rounded education in the humanities for $36,970 a year. New York magazine ’s guide to “Cracking the Kindergarten Code” provides painstaking answers to the questions, “Will bribery work?” and “Should you despair of getting Junior into an Ivy if he doesn’t get into a top-tier kindergarten?” Emily Glickman, a preschool admissions coach who helps urban parents navigate the application process—herself a graduate of the city’s elite private schools and specialized public high schools—says that Bill Clinton is “a popular choice for recommendation letters” among families she works with. The right private preschool is expected to open the door to admission to the right elementary, middle, and high school, then the Ivy League, and a lifetime of success.

Free public preschool or “Universal Pre-K” (UPK) is hardly easier to get into than private school. In 2013, the most popular programs admitted less than 5 percent of the families with four-year-olds who applied. In the 2014 school year, even after New York City mayor Bill de Blasio doubled the number of seats available to 40,000, only 62 percent of families who applied got a position. And while middle-class moms and dads may not be buying $1,000 strollers, elite parents have reshaped mainstream cultural expectations. Nearly 40 percent of first-time mothers said, in a 2012 survey, they felt guilty for not being able to afford a specific product for their newborns.

Meanwhile, nearly a third of American children live in households with incomes below 60 percent of the national median of about $31,000 (as of 2008).

It is a stark contrast. Here’s another: Only 5.3 percent of children in Norway, about 7 percent in Finland, and 10 percent in Denmark live in such extreme poverty. The wealthiest country in the world, the United States is slotted just above Mexico, Israel, Spain, Greece, and Latvia when it comes to the percentage of children living in impoverished households—behind thirty-five out of forty-one nations surveyed.

These families are not the audience for essays on “How to Parent Like a German.” Most stories in that vein (and there are plenty—American expatriates writing on the wisdom of European parenting now constitutes an entire genre) focus on the internal battles of individual parents and use psychological language to admonish American parents to simply let go and relax, to back off, quit being a helicopter parent. Sara Zaske, an American mother and journalist, writes in Time: “The first time I went to a playground in Berlin, I freaked. All the German parents were huddled together, drinking coffee, not paying attention to their children who were hanging off a wooden dragon 20 feet above a sand pit. Where were the piles of soft padded foam? The liability notices? The personal injury lawyers?” Ultimately, she gains the confidence to let her child play freely on the playground and even go to the store by herself. She ’s come to terms with the more laid-back style of German parents—and that is where her story ends.

But of course, it ’s the beginning of a much more interesting question. American parents are not suffering from a collective delusion. The phenomenon they are responding to is real. Why are American parents of all classes experiencing such pressure to ensure that their children are constantly being giving every advantage—being constantly overseen and prepared for the competitive world of adulthood?

Pamela Druckerman, another American mother, and the author of Bringing Up Bébé— which is much more interesting than its cutesy title suggests—began writing her book after moving to France and observing that French babies start sleeping through the night at two or three months old, don’t seem to require constant adult supervision, and are capable of hearing the word “no” without collapsing. “French parents are very concerned about their kids,” she writes—but they aren’t panicked about their child’s well-being, or exhausted, as many Americans seem to be. Druckerman attributes the difference to widespread absorption in the problem of children “falling behind” since the 1990s, and to the growing sense that children are psychologically fragile. Though the rate of violent crime has fallen dramatically since the early 1990s, “news reports create the impression that children are at greater physical risk than ever.” She also points out the real economic advantages to being a parent in France: French parents have access to full-time, government-subsidized and regulated day care. Middle-class parents prefer crèches to hiring nannies privately. Druckerman recalls the different reactions she got from her American versus French friends and family to finding a place for her child in a crèche. Her mother paused tepidly over the phone. An American friend said she liked more individualized attention for her own child than a day care could provide. French friends, on the other hand, congratulated her, and “practically crack[ed] open champagne.”

American ambivalence toward day care makes sense given the lack of federal oversight and regulation and the high turnover and low pay for teachers, which means program quality varies immensely. It also reflects a larger ambivalence about women’s role in society: The so-called “mommy wars” are still going on here, as conservatives continue to question whether a woman’s place isn’t really at home with her kids. Additionally, there is a class stigma to day care in the States that does not exist in most European countries. Institutionalized day care in America has traditionally had a compensatory role—functioning as a way to make up for perceived deficits in low-income families, from early-twentieth-century programs aimed at working-class women to the first federally funded system of early childhood education and health care, Head Start, which was founded in the 1960s and means-tested, meaning only families making below a certain income level were welcome. Finally, and more subtly, day care is a collective and—in comparison to the private household—public space, requiring cooperation among large numbers of families, teachers, and administrators, in a country that above all values individual freedom. American families worry constantly that another child’s needs will take precedent over the needs of their own child.

It is not out of the question that a child’s needs will go unmet in the United States. In fact, it happens every day. And it ’s changing the way we understand what it means to be a child—to learn and grow.

For nineteenth-century Romantics, childhood was (at least idealistically) an innocent phase of life that transpired mostly outside of the economy when, as Wordsworth wrote, “every common sight” appears “apparell’d in celestial light.” These values persisted among middle-class Europeans and Americans well into the late nineteenth century. But, against a background of increasing wealth inequality, a shift has taken place. Today, childhood in America has come to be regarded in the mainstream as a period of intense preparation for the competitive pressures of adulthood.

Parents struggle to give their children the edge that they will need to survive in the stratified and competitive labor market. The nurturing and raising of children, once seen as deserving of fierce protection from market forces, has now become intertwined with economic pressures: It is never too early to start equipping a child with the skills and personality traits that will ensure productivity and success in the global economy. This can lead to a focus on the outcomes of child-rearing, rather than the day-to-day pleasures, for both parent and child. The pressure to be more and more involved is endless and exhausting.

For the past three school years, I have worked as the administrator of a preschool and after-school program for the largest community organization in the country. Both programs are economically and racially diverse in a way I had not previously experienced working as a volunteer, mentor, and student teacher at three different public schools in New York City for a year and a half prior. One of my jobs is helping parents from all backgrounds apply to public and private kindergarten. Every year, the demands of wealthy parents and fears (and disappointments) of middle-class and lower-income families have intensified. During a workshop on kindergarten admissions, when discussing the student-centered, progressive education provided for free by some elementary schools that require an admissions exam or luck to get into, one middle-class parent raised her hand and asked, heartbreakingly, “Why don’t all of the schools have that?”

Her frustration is understandable. While there is no single measure that automatically and uniformly creates a better learning environment, smaller class sizes have been consistently linked to higher student achievement. Yet former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of several urban mayors including Rahm Emanuel of Chicago to have autocratic control over the city’s public schools, said in December 2011 that his ideal education system would require firing half of the city’s teachers and paying twice as much to the remainder to teach classes double the size. In New York City, public school class sizes rose for the third consecutive year in 2011.

On the other hand, student-to-teacher ratios at the nation’s elite private schools like Sidwell Friends, attended by President Obama’s children, is one teacher for every ten students in the lower grades, with class sizes of fourteen to sixteen students in the upper school, permitting “individual attention, group discussion, and close interaction between students and teachers.” The curriculum is “experiential and small group based,” and students learn through the use of manipulatives, models, games, and creative work. In the lower school, art is integrated into the classroom every day. Students have art class once a week and music class twice.

For the rest of the country, time spent on creative subjects like art and music has dropped precipitously. In a study on the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act, independent nonprofit Center on Education Policy (CEP) found that curriculum and instructional time had changed since the passing of the standards and accountability measures, with increased time for tested subjects (ELA and math) and reduced time for other subjects (social studies, art, science, music, phys ed, and lunch and recess) since 2002. Both the increases in time for tested subjects and decreases in time for other subjects were more prevalent in districts with schools that were identified as in need of improvement.

It ’s unclear to what extent hours spent in foreign language classes, art classes, or recess inside and outside of school actually produce the outcomes affluent parents seek—an increase in IQ and other standardized test scores, a competitive edge among their peers. In fact, in their essential and foundational research, the Marxist sociologists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis document that “social class or racial differences in IQ are nearly irrelevant to the process of intergenerational status transmission,” a strong critique of well-meaning liberal projects (like the early childhood and health program Head Start) to bring about equality by making access to educational opportunity more equitable.

What is clear is that family wealth and children’s academic achievement are related, well before children enter school. An overall $3,000 increase in family income is correlated to higher academic achievement equivalent to two extra months of schooling. And families spend more money on enrichment items for children as their overall expenditures (a proxy of income) rise.

This is true within specific families as well as a trend over time. Spending on child-enrichment goods and services has jumped for families in the top quintiles to a far greater extent than for those in the bottom income quintiles, beginning in the

1970s and intensifying by 2005, according to four expansive consumer expenditure surveys conducted between the early 1970s and 2005 to 2006. High-income families are more likely to move to have better access to resources for their children, both outside of school as well as within it, because the United States relies heavily on property taxes to fund education, meaning that housing policy has deep consequences for the distribution of and access to educational resources.

What is at stake when some children go to school hungry, and others go to school in $1,000 strollers? When rich kids get recess and art class, and poor and middle-class kids don’t?

When a new parent buys a pair of shoes for his baby that some grown women will never be able to afford, or enrolls her toddler in a Mandarin class with the intent of making the child a more desirable hire—or spends hours painstakingly preparing kindergarten applications with the help of a hired consultant—what exactly is being bought, and what is being sold? The strollers and cashmere blankets and Baby Mozart CDs are but signifiers of a broader economic trend. At the same time that educational mobility has decreased, meaning economic advantage and disadvantage is being passed along the generations in America, the economic struggles of low- income and working-class families have visibly increased. It is as hard as it has ever been to be poor in America, and getting harder. It ’s also getting harder to hold onto being middle class. Anxiety among even the wealthiest parents is not unfounded, given the increasing economic stratification even within the top 1 percent of the country’s earners.

The increasing pressure reported in popular parenting books and magazine articles since the 1980s and 1990s corresponds exactly to the intensification of wealth concentration and competitive economic pressure on American workers. If, in a society organized around a free market economy, we aim to above all buy cheap and sell dear, it is in the interest of an employer to pay workers as little as possible—indeed, he must, to keep up with the others, so that globalization is described even by the Economist as one long race to the bottom. Mainstream economists routinely observe that the deep and wide-ranging drop in labor rights in the 1980s and 1990s is due to competition for foreign direct investment. As worker protections slip and competition for jobs intensifies, “degree inflation” occurs, meaning jobs that once did not require a credential now do, “pushing the less educated even further down,” as the New York Times noted in 2013, when the unemployment rate for workers with no more than a high school diploma was more than twice that for those with a bachelor’s degree. Of course, it ’s not the degree alone that matters—it’s a sorting mechanism for dividing “good” workers from “bad.” “College workers are just more career-oriented,” one managing partner at a law firm told the Times, summarizing the conventional recruiter wisdom. “Going to college means they are making a real commitment to their futures. They’re not just looking for a paycheck.” Conventional wisdom aside, the result is racial discrimination and the reinforcement of social class: Today a white high school dropout has the same chance of getting a job as a Black college dropout. Black students must complete two additional levels of education above their white peers to have the same probability of getting a job.

Many American parents have understandably come to view education as a process of ensuring one ’s child has met every milestone on time or early. K–12 schools are increasingly responsible for providing this kind of education, whether that means assisting wealthy parents in their goals for their children’s achievement or compensating for what is seen as working-class parents’ inability to provide these opportunities for their children.

Wealthy and middle-class parents exercise an inordinate amount of power over the broad values and direction of the public and private school systems, whether that is directly, as philanthropists funding specific projects and visions for schools, or simply because they have more time and say in a society where they are more able to make their voices heard.

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