Does providing your children with enrichment activities give them a head start for success or an unfair advantage?
A recent David Brooks column in the New York Times argues that for college educated parents, it’s the latter. “Over the past generation, members of the college educated class have become amazingly good at making sure their children retain their privileged status. They have also become devastatingly good at making sure the children of other classes have limited chances to join their ranks.” In other words, college educated parents give their children an unfair advantage by investing time and money in them, while at the same time they create barriers to prevent children from other classes from competing with their sweet darlings.
This may be true in the social circles Brooks inhabits amongst the coastal elites, but the view from the hinterlands of suburban Atlanta looks quite different when it comes to community efforts to create opportunity. While we have our enclaves of the well-to-do, just like everywhere else, most areas are diverse in many respects, including income and education levels. In the public school district my children attend, sixty to seventy percent of students receive free and reduced lunches, a metric often used to measure poverty levels in public schools. There are students in the district who are children of the college educated, upper middle class, but there are also many students who are struggling in the grips of poverty. That is why teachers, staff, and an army of volunteers work hard to ensure every student has the opportunity for college or trade school after graduation.
I do get what Brooks is trying to say in his piece, and there is truth to it. There are social markers that point to who belongs and who doesn’t belong in every group. For the elites who define success a certain way—getting into the right schools, landing the right internships, and getting job offers in the right prestigious companies—those markers are vitally important and the barriers to success for folks outside the group are high. However, the rest of us out here in the land between the coasts shrug our shoulders over worries about having proper tastes and opinions and just want to have enough to cover our needs plus some extra to cover our wants. Most importantly, we want everyone to have an opportunity at success on those terms as well.
This is why I disagree that the college educated class is deliberately working to stifle upward mobility. This sweeping generality is unfair to the college educated men and women in my community who work hard to give children opportunities to succeed. They staff PTA boards, donating countless hours raising tens of thousands of dollars for field trips and in-school enrichment activities. They lead Girl Scout troops, Boy Scout troops, and other youth organizations that give kids of all income levels the types of experiences that look good on college applications. They act as mentors and write recommendation letters for colleges and other programs. They stock food pantries and clothes closets in our schools. This generosity is not unique to my hometown; it is found throughout communities across America. There is no great conspiracy to lock others out of opportunity—at least not in flyover country—and I expect not amongst the coastal elite either.
This struck me especially as I’m here in Titusville, Florida this week working remotely while my twelve-year-old son attends NASA’s Space Camp at Kennedy Space Center—the ultimate in enrichment activities for a kid who dreams of building the rockets that will power NASA’s mission to Mars one day. Families have traveled from all over the country to give their children the opportunity to work with NASA instructors and learn about the space program. I am not going to feel guilty that my family has the means to do this, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about the things you do for your children either. This is not a zero sum game where the opportunities we give our own children take opportunities from others.
It is time to set aside our us-versus-them mentality, look outside our self-imposed identity groups, and give each other a modicum of grace to find opportunity and success for ourselves and our children on our own terms without disparaging each other’s motivations.