One local mother hires tutors twice a week to help her daughter maintain her straight-A average. The mother just added a writing tutor—all because she’s determined her daughter will get into a certain Ivy League college. She worries that her relationship with her daughter is suffering and that the girl is burning out, but she doesn’t feel she can back off.
“I need to know my kid is fully prepared,” she says. “Where you go to college follows you everywhere. I live where the prestige of having a kid go to a really good college is important. It’s a reflection of who I am.”
Meanwhile, it’s gotten harder to get into the colleges Mom and Dad attended. The percentage of applicants admitted to top schools is shrinking because more kids are applying. And those schools are under pressure not to automatically admit so many well-off kids from private high schools. Graduating from St. Albans or Sidwell no longer is a guarantee of an Ivy League education.
Bobby Asher, dean of students at Georgetown Day School, says he tries to reassure students by telling them he lives in a fine neighborhood in Chevy Chase “and there’s not an Ivy Leaguer on the block.”
It’s not just “tiger mothers” who push their kids. Some parents who want to ease the burden on their children say they feel caught in an academic arms race.
One father with a daughter at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School in DC bristles at sending his sixth-grader to an SSAT prep class on Sundays. But he knows she needs excellent scores to get into a top high school. “You feel like you have to do it,” he says. “I think this is overkill, but do I really want to use my daughter as an object lesson in a revolt?”
A mother with two kids at a DC private school initially decided against outside academic help such as Kumon, an after-school math and reading program, in the primary grades. She was thinking of her own childhood, in which she played every day: “If you want to give more play time to your children, you can’t be grinding them with extra workbooks and Kumon after school. An eight-hour school day and homework was enough.”
But she says her daughter paid a price because her math skills didn’t measure up. The mother blames other parents for raising the bar. “You place your kids at risk of being behind their peers,” she says, if you don’t drill them in early elementary school. She has now hired a tutor so her daughter can catch up.
The same feeling helps explain why parents spend hours a day helping kids with their homework—sometimes doing assignments for them. One mother, who has a child who graduated from National Cathedral School and another at Sidwell, recalls being at a middle-school potluck when a fellow parent complained that the teacher had just given a bad grade on an essay he wrote for his child. The man cited his Ivy League credentials and questioned the teacher’s competence.
The mother noticed a few heads turn. “But everyone had a poker face on,” she says. “We wondered how many parents were double-checking all of their kids’ homework and writing their essays. And we wondered if we should be doing that, too.”
Another mother whose children have attended four top private schools recalls that her daughter created a poster by herself for a project in fourth grade while the daughter of a filmmaker turned in a polished video on brain development. “We have decided that a C you earn yourself is much more important than an A you earn with lots of help,” she says. But she worries that her approach could hurt her kids when they apply to college: “They’ll be up against kids whose grades have been propped up by parents and tutors, so our kids will look less impressive than they are.”
Next: Raising the bar on academic goals for students