On the first day of school, more thoughts about Jay and Wally’s educational futures

This morning I roused Jay at 7am for his first day of preschool.  I dressed him in the gray post-dawn (already June’s endless days feel so far away), and sat him in the kitchen where he ate a piece of toast with peanut butter while I unloaded the dishwasher.  When he’d finished, I wiped the crumbs from his chin and we walked outside to the driveway.  Caroline came down in her pajamas with a t-shirt thrown over top and we took pictures on the front stoop.  Then off we went, through the neighborhood, past intersections where tanned children wearing shiny backpacks waited to cross the street.

Jay cried when I left him at school.  I had to pry his arms from around my neck and kind of thrust him into the grasp of his teacher in order to make a clean get-away.  On the drive home I felt sad and heavy but in that kind of good way that comes from knowing that life is proceeding as it should.  Our house was quiet when I walked back through the front door.  At breakfast with Wally, Caroline recalled the line, “The easiest number of children is one less than you have.”  Indeed, Wally’s clamoring for more smoothie aside, this post-Jay morning made me feel a little like an empty nester.

I’ve spent a lot of the day answering emails that came in response to my article in this weekend’s Washington Post.  The story, if you haven’t read it, is about the considerations and tradeoffs that go into choosing where to send your kids to school.  In it I conclude, with some doubts and reservations, that getting Jay and Wally into the best K-12 schools possible might not be as consequential as conventional wisdom would have it.

The response has been more positive (or at least gentler) than I’d anticipated.  I heard from dozens of parents, the majority of them mothers with grown children reflecting on the decisions they’d made with their kids.  One mother, whose letter I particularly appreciated, rued that job considerations had prevented her and her husband from moving their family from the Washington suburbs to New England, and laid out her advice quite plainly: “Here are my two cents: Go to Maine to raise your children!”

The article also prompted an email exchange with a friend.  He went to a top private school and wrote that he wants a similar experience for his young son for two main reasons: 1) He loved the intellectual stimulation; and 2) The large workload helped him develop a work ethic that has served him well throughout life.

These points are, to me, where the K-12 decision is hardest to resolve.  As I wrote in my article, I think that Jay and Wally will have the opportunity to go as far as their abilities will take them regardless of where we send them to high school.  And I don’t think attending an elite school (public or private) is the only way to stimulate Jay and Wally or to teach them to work hard.  But I do think it helps.

It goes without saying that the material taught at a place like Groton or Punahou (where our president went to high school) is going to be more challenging than the material taught at a typical public high school.  I grew up curious about the world and excited about ideas, and some of that curiosity and excitement was prodded by school.  But I was also bored a lot of the time and I wouldn’t mind if Jay and Wally spent a little more of their 7:30am-2pm adolescent days with their minds on fire.

With respect to working hard.  In a previous conversation my friend had told me and Caroline that he’d worked harder in high school than at any other time in his life.  We were both stunned because our experiences were so different.  All told, I didn’t really learn how to work hard until much later in life (maybe not until I became a parent).  It wasn’t that I was lazy or unmotivated.  It was just that the circumstances in which I grew up didn’t require me to work hard.  So, more or less, I made it into my mid-20s without ever having applied myself with complete commitment to anything.

As I wrote in a post last January, I want Jay and Wally to learn to work hard from a young age.  Both as an end in itself, and because I want them to understand that through sustained, committed practice they can get better at things.  It’s obvious on an intellectual level that hard work produces better outcomes, but I don’t think you can understand that in a real way until you’ve experienced it.  I first began to understand the relationship between hard work and progress a few years ago, when I got more serious about running.  I started running multiple times a week and longer distances and I saw my body change and I felt my fitness increase.  What I learned through running I’ve been able to apply to writing and raising kids.

And I do think I might have learned that lesson earlier in life had my education been more challenging.  At the same time, I think there are lots of ways I can impart this lesson to Jay and Wally that have nothing to do with where they go to school.

There’s a downside, though, to attending school in a challenging, demanding environment.  My friend told me that staying up consistently until midnight to finish his homework took a toll.  For Caroline, this is a main point.  She wants Jay and Wally to work hard and be stimulated but she doesn’t want them to be stressed throughout high school.  Both Caroline and I would err on the side of our kids being a little less challenged if it means they’re a little less stressed.  My friend said he’d err on the side of his son being a little more challenged, even if it means he’s a little more stressed.

The last thing I’ll say has to do with boredom.  And here I admit that things get fuzzy.  I’ve written before about “embracing boredom” and I do think there’s value in being bored.  When you’re not stimulated and not challenged, there’s room for other thoughts to come in.  I like the perspective I get on the world and on myself when things are slow.  Like I said, this is where things get fuzzy.  It seems ridiculous to base major parenting decisions on a line like, “I like the perspective I get on the world and on myself when things are slow.”  But there it is.

As I’ve said, there are no obvious answers when it comes to the K-12 school decision and probably no right answers, either.  At a certain point it comes down to personal experience and intuition and it’s important to remember that there are innumerable paths through childhood that lead to happy, successful adult lives.


5 thoughts on “On the first day of school, more thoughts about Jay and Wally’s educational futures

  1. I don’t remember being challenged in the right ways in high school, but now that I’m looking back on it, I realize that I could have challenged myself more if I had been more aware of my surroundings. I didn’t take as many honors classes as I could have, I didn’t involve myself in as many extracurriculars as I could have, etc. So I guess I feel like part of being stimulated by your school experience is being aware of what your school has to offer.

  2. My son doesn’t start school until next year and I have debated with my wife several times the intricacies of today’s educational system vs. the one we grew up in. I even wrote a few posts about today’s standardized testing and the centric focus on teaching young girls vs. boys. I think as a parent we have so much to consider when it comes to the future success of our children. There was a time (in recent memory) where a school was a school and education was more equalized but this is no longer the case.

    Today, teachers have so much to worry about and focus on that they have little time to actually know our children. I wish I could say that I knew what was the correct answer for today’s children but i don’t. I do think by starting conversations about education in a positive way we are at least moving in the right direction. I just hope, as a father, my son has a great educational experience when he begins school next year.


  3. I think intellectual stimulation is primarily the job of the parent and not the school. Schools are all institutions in which the teachers serve many kids at once, and some will reach your kid, while others will not. The job of the parent is to guide your child through the different opportunities the school offers.

    My main objective for my daughters is in the ethical and spiritual realm, and giving them the tools to understand and cope with the world. I think a lot of upper/upper-middle class parents say things like “I’m cool with my kid being a janitor if it makes them happy, but I want to make sure that if they want to go to Harvard and be a doctor then I’ve given them the opportunity to achieve that path.” But the world is so competitive that you essentially have to push them to be a certain way and live a highly structured life in order to give them a chance at Harvard. So you aren’t really giving them a choice- you are choosing for them.

    Speaking personally, I think if my daughters get to high school and have and Ivy League school as their objective, then I will have failed them as a father, because there is so much more to the world than a prestigious college. I went to Middlebury College for a year and flunked out after becoming spectacularly depressed. I wish my parents had taken more care paying attention to my mental/spiritual upbringing and less time on my grades and work ethic.

  4. I found this blog after reading the Washington Post article. Have you considered homeschooling? It is really the perfect solution. Not only does it promote family relationships… if you think about it, it is really the most elite education you can give your child.

    • It’s not something I’ve thought about from time to time but never really considered. My wife and I both had pretty positive experiences in public school and are inclined to try and repeat those for our kids.

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