Everyone raises their children in different ways. We have different standards, different methods of discipline, and different values. But just about every parent on the planet has at least one thing in common: they each want their kid to succeed.
Success means different things to different people. But, for the most part, we’re talking here about success in one’s career. We’re talking about a person making enough money to live comfortably and to be able to make the career and life decisions that he or she wants without fear.
In modern democracies – the supposed lands of opportunity and fair play – we’d like to believe that everyone has a fair shot at that kind of success. And, in a way, they do – the most privileged of us sometimes fail, and the least privileged of us sometimes succeed. But it’s also clear that, in America, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other western democracies, wealthy families tend to stay wealth and poor families tend to stay poor. That happens for a lot of reasons, and some of them are political questions: inheritance laws, for instance, and tax laws. But it also happens because, for most people, success starts very, very young. It starts far younger, in fact, than the founders of these democracies could ever have known or accounted for. But we know it, and as parents, we can use this knowledge to secure the best possible future for our kids.
Rich kids, poor kids
The child of a wealth Microsoft executive who grows up in a luxurious Seattle condo will have a very different life than a factory worker’s kid in rural Michigan. And when the two are grown, we might not be surprised if the executive’s kid has done better. We might think about it in a bitter way. We might assume that the executive called in favors from his friends to set his so up with a cushy business god and put him on the road to an easy fortune – which will only grow when he inherits his father’s riches.
And some kids do have it easy, and how we handle nepotism and inheritance is a political question. But it’s also a fact that the executive’s kid is quite likely to succeed even if he chooses to steer well clear of business. Maybe he’ll go into medicine, where his father’s tech and business contacts can’t help him. He’s still more likely than the other kid to do well. Why?
The answer is education.
Education: an unequal playing field
In some western countries, including the United States, education policy is set by several different levels of government. In the U.S., for instance, the states set curriculum standards – not the federal government. Local districts can make decisions, too, and even teachers can tweak the curriculum by, for instance, making a choice from a list of approved books. And funding is spread out as well. The federal government makes grants, but, crucially, it’s local taxes that fund schools. That means poor areas can have schools that are far worse than those in wealthy areas.
In just about every western country, parents can also choose to send their kids to private schools. These schools aren’t always better than good public schools, but they can be, and they are often a great deal better than schools in poorer districts.
This raises a lot of political questions, of course. But it also forces a priority on parents in the short-term. Regardless of the fairness of this system, parents will want to send their kids to the best school possible. When parents move, they need to make school districts an important consideration when they shop for a home. If they’re in lower-income area, a private school may be the best option. If private schools are out of financial reach, a charter school could be the solution.
The earlier, the better
Part of why education systems and wealth gaps make such sensitive issues in politics is that they offend one of our most dearly held values: the idea that anyone can get ahead. While it’s true that success is possible for anyone, it’s also clear that a child’s odds of success are influenced by things that happen long before they take charge of their own lives. This is most clear in early childhood education, which is the single most vital thing a parent can provide for their child.
Low-income children hear far fewer words growing up than high-income children, partly because they’re less likely to have a caretaker at home. Low-income children are less likely to get pre-K education, too. By the time children get to kindergarten, they’ve already developed a lot.
As a political issue, this has led to universal pre-K programs in places like New York City. As a personal question, it means that parents should do everything possible to place their child in an early childhood education program. A Toronto couple that sends their children to a Richmond Hill private school for pre-K hasn’t determined their children’s whole future, but what they have done is given their children a vital head-start over the competition.
As more and more research is done, it’s becoming clearer every day that kids’ odds of success are affected by what happens to them at a very young age. That makes for big political questions, but also for important parental decisions. As parents, we need to prioritize pre-K education and good school districts, so that kids are put on the right track from a young age and stay on it throughout their school careers.