The Kindergarten Wars

Will you and your child survive the admissions process?

Let’s start at the end.

February 25, 2007.

The admissions letters from all ten of the private schools you’ve applied to have arrived. All but two of the envelopes are thin. You’re waitlisted at three schools, turned down at five and accepted at two— schools you wouldn’t pay five cents for, schools that, if you stretched it, were your third choice.

Congratulations! You’ve hit a home run!

Park bench and urban legend horror stories abound about great kids from wonderful families who have gotten shut out completely. As in, zero for ten. School officials admit that over the last three years, for the first time ever, some people did not get in anywhere. A parent I spoke to referred to last year as a bloodbath and called this year, nuclear war.

Let’s assume that you’ve done all the right things: you’ve identified your first-choice school, filled out your applications early, written your essay thoughtfully and participated in your child’s preschool affairs without being overbearing or annoying to the preschool director. But when all is said and done, you realize you don’t have more money than God, meaning that you can’t write a check that will knock a school director’s socks off; your child did well on his ERBs but not spectacular; and your friends are not state senators or scions of Wall Street— they’re just like you, gulp, normal.

How will you get in?

Realistically, chances are you won’t, at least not to your first choice school. This means your kid is doomed to a lesser private school or public school. And forget getting into an Ivy League college.

Be honest. That’s what’s on your mind, if not in the forefront, in the back. You believe that where your child goes to kindergarten affects where he gets into college. He’s 4 and it’s over. Now what? How will you survive?
By repeating two mantras every hour, more often if needed.

Mantra #1: It’s only kindergarten.

Yes, kindergarten is the most common entry point for many of the top private k-12 schools in the area, and graduating high school from a top private school seems to matter when it comes to getting accepted into an elite college. A report in the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Journal, entitled “The Price of Admission” (April 2, 2004), calculated where the 2003 incoming freshman class at ten elite colleges— Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Harvard, Pomona, Princeton, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale— went to high school. Using a criterion of having at least 50 students in the graduating class, the article ranked the schools that had the highest percentage of students admitted to those ten elite colleges. The top 30 high schools in the survey were private schools. The one public high school that cracked the top 30 was Hunter College High School in New York City. The article mentioned four other private high schools with graduating classes of less than 50, that except for class size, would have topped the list. Adding these four, the scorecard reads 33 of 34 in favor of private schools.

So getting into the “right” kindergarten, especially if the school is k-12, does mean there is a connection to where your child goes to college. And getting into a premiere college means your kid is set for life, assured of success and happiness, right? Well, no.

Much has been written about the migration of graduating seniors from the Ivy League and other big name colleges who have taken up residence in their old rooms in the family house. After going through private school since kindergarten, these highly educated young adults discover that without the pressure of classes, homework and exams, they don’t know what to do with themselves. This phenomenon has been aptly coined the Boomerang Effect.

“Getting into an Ivy League college does not come with a guarantee that your child is going to be a successful human being,” an educational consultant said. “He gets into Harvard… great. And then what? He’s going to come home. We are creating this whole group of children who feel entitled but don’t have a clue how to accomplish anything. There is a huge difference between feeling entitled and having self-esteem. Self-esteem comes from accomplishing something on your own. That is the key. It’s way more important to know that your child is happy and feels successful and like a viable human being who has an effect on the world. More important than anything else.” Repeat: It’s only kindergarten.

Mantra #2: You’re not going to kindergarten.

[Fill in elite private school here] might be the perfect school for you, but it may be wrong for your child. Maybe your child would flourish in a low-key environment and would struggle in a highly academic, name brand pressure cooker, even if you know it’s a school that puts you on the fast track to the Ivy League. Do you really want your kid to be miserable? Or is it really all about you?

“Most parents say they want to do what’s best for their child,” said the head of a prestigious private school. “But in doing what they think is best, they are in fact doing some shortsighted things, which may make their children successful students in the very narrow sense, but really lousy people long-term. There are studies of the top graduates of high schools that show that these kids are crashing and burning in college. The admissions director at Harvard wrote an article in Independent School Magazine in which he said that the nicknames for these kids are “Teacups” and “Crispies” because they’re fragile and burned out. It’s getting out of control. The parents have to slow down. They have to try to grasp the big perspective of a lifetime of learning and growing. They are getting so preoccupied with a kindergarten spot. There are lots of other things that are important. Look at your kid. Consider that you’ve got a whole universe, a life, a 4-year-old life, that is going to be around for many years. Don’t let your own anxieties color this experience. We don’t have the perspective yet to see that we’re going over the top.

There has clearly been a cultural shift. Parents today participate in their kids’ lives more than ever before. They organize and orchestrate childhood to the point that children have more activities and commitments than most professionals.

“I think it’s harmful for children,” the private school director said. “What’s interesting is when you look at the lives of really successful people, when you look at where they went to school and how well they did, you often see a story of mediocre grades at a less than elite school. Jack Welch went to UMass, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both dropped out of college. The list goes on and on. My guess is that as kids these people were not over-managed, over-programmed or over-packaged. They’re real people, people who tried things, followed their passions, created dreams and weren’t driven by grades. They have skills that often aren’t measured in schools. There is a whole emotional quotient that schools don’t measure in a real way. And we should. What’s happened is that success is too narrowly defined, mostly by parents. A child’s next step for success has become the path to ten elite universities. That’s just wrong.”

Your child may not end up in the “right” kindergarten. But he will undoubtedly end up in a perfectly fine kindergarten, on a path leading to the best possible college, for him. He will survive.

Will you?