Samantha Bee is on vacation with her three children, and she’s exhausted. The Daily Show correspondent writes in the Wall Street Journal that she is a “tiger mother” to her three children, but the kind of tiger “who lays there helplessly in the sun as her tiger babies climb all over her, tugging on her fur and generally having their way with her.” A self-described child of the ‘70s, Bee remembers spending her summers in front of the TV and wandering around aimlessly. “Nobody cared if I read. Nobody cared if I wore sunscreen, or pants. I was like a house cat; my parents barely even knew if I was still living with them or whether I had moved in with the old lady down the street who would put out a bowl of food for me,” she writes.
“Thus, this emphasis on summer enrichment activities and exercise and fresh air and learning today feels unfamiliar to me. Whatever happened to letting kids’ IQs backslide for three months, all the way back to March? I can’t be the only one who wants to sit on a lawn chair parked in a kiddie pool all day while my children gently splash me with cool water, can I? I mean, isn’t it good for the brain to “cocoon” or something, to spin itself into some kind of intellectual chrysalis—to “hibernate” for a few months so that it can get hungry again and mate in the fall? That is a proven fact from a scientific study that I just conducted in my brain.”
Bee’s humorous piece is not intended to be a commentary on education, but the reader comments on the Journal’s site read like Meg Ryan’s deli scene in When Harry Met Sally (“Oh, yes…Yes!…Yes!!”) Clearly there are a lot of parents out there who, like Bee, have little interest in turning concerted cultivation into a blood sport.
The piece, and the chorus of tired Tiger Moms shouting their agreement, present a bit of a dilemma for those of us worried about low-income kids, low student achievement, and the general plight of academic have-nots. For Bee’s kids, lying around all summer is not the cognitive equivalent of Malik and Jose lying around their apartment in the South Bronx. Bee’s kids have literate, verbal parents, who stimulate their kids just by talking to them, and a steady level of interaction with educated adults. They’re not even lying around. They experience different environments (two weeks in the country, farmer’s markets, the lake) and probably spend a lot of time engaging in self-directed creative play with other kids. They run around with friends outside and probably, when bored, end up inside watching Animal Planet or Arthur on PBS Kids. It’s highly unlikely Bee is letting them hang out playing Mortal Kombat all day. Her piece notwithstanding, the standards of even laissez faire middle class parenting make it equally unlikely that she’s going to completely disregard their health and nutrition. The Bee kids in short, are growing up in a well-resourced, culturally rich and literate community among similarly literate kids and verbal, well-educated adults. They practically absorb cognitive benefits through their pores.
Tiger Mothers and Helicopter Parents loom large in the public imagination, and there can be little doubt that standards of middle class parenting have become far more aggressive since the 1970s. But I suspect that most parents, consciously or unconsciously, do the cost-benefit analysis that Bee’s piece implies. “My childhood summer vacations were spent languishing in front of the TV watching Phil Donahue and eating Boo Berry until my skin turned purple. Nobody cared if I read,” she writes, without completing the thought: And I turned out just fine. The upside of all the additional enrichment she lampoons is unclear, and (many parents surely suspect) not even unambiguously positive. “OK,” you might think, “My kid isn’t a piano prodigy and it would be cool if she were doing science camp at MIT at age 10. But she seems happy enough. She’s well-rounded, interested in different things and gets along with other kids. And she’s still doing pretty well in school. That’s probably enough.”
And it almost certainly is enough for Bee’s kids and many, many others. They may not end up running Google or winning the Intel Science talent search, but you could safely bet real money they end up doing just fine, thanks. Cognitively speaking, they’re already on third base.
Summer slump? Low educational productivity? Year round schooling? Forget it. Other nations may be outeducating us, sending their children to school for 200+ days every year, but I suspect it will never happen here. Affluent parents will never accept it. The imperative of economic competitiveness is a non-starter among the parents of those who were born economically competitive.