The XX Factor

What If French Kids End Up Smoking Stuyvesants by the Waterfront?

Jess , I love the vision of myself putting away margaritas on the porch all summer while my four children entertain themselves in the yard, catching frogs, digging in the mud, and lighting things (not the frogs) on fire, as country kids do, and I feel that Elisabeth Badinter (author of Le Conflit, La Femme et La Mère [The Conflict, The Woman and The Mother ]) might put down her cigarette and approve. I have no interest in spending more than 20 hours a week driving children to activities to get them into top private schools and colleges, as those U. of C.-San Diego economists found women doing, and I’m certainly not about to quit working to do it (you can add a laptop into that vision of me with the margarita). But articles like this one in the Harvard alumni magazine give me pause. Even while I’m laughing at the new additions to the taxonomy of vehicular parenting, the one unifying element in every story of “snowplow” parenting and the astonishingly overachieving, overscheduled kids it has produced is this: It worked.

Not that I equate parenting success with Harvard admissions-far from it. (It’s probably worth noting here that I don’t officially receive the Harvard alumni magazine.) But we don’t read stories about a dad calling up his kid’s employer to suggest that the kid get moved from the fry station to the drive-through, and if there are Osprey parents parachuting supplies in to the local community colleges, the NYT and the WSJ haven’t covered it. Nope-those young athlete-concert-musician-music producer-chefs have been snowplowed right into Harvard, and although the Harvard admissions professionals and other staff quoted in the article purport to disapprove of the “nonstop” schedules of students accustomed to being shuttled from activity to activity, they seem to have supported the results of the “rug-rat-race.” Perhaps the students and their parents should indeed-as the dean of freshmen proposes-spend more time “paying attention to the things they love” rather than on what the study authors call the “wasteful overinvestment”of parental time and energy. But in this context, that message is a little hard to hear.

I’d prefer to listen to Badinter. The ever-increasing requirements of perfectionist parenting-from the rejection of the “powdered milk, jars of baby food and disposable nappies” that were “all stages in the liberation of women” to a world in which kids who aren’t provided with a parental chauffeur and scheduling service are doomed to compete with the legions of kids who are-absolutely make parenting feel like an oppressive, all-encompassing endeavor. But even though my personal metaphorical parenting transport is probably a Prius, I’m leery of taking my laissez-faire parenting advice from the wealthy heir to an advertising fortune who lives in a country with a strong social safety net and vastly different ideas concerning class mobility. I agree that taking it easier is almost always better for me. I struggle with whether it’s really better for my daughters and sons, too.