Leverage unfair advantages in order to get the power to fix them

I had a friend in high school whose mom wrote her papers. At the time I thought: messed up family.

Then I became a mom who practiced cello three hours a day with my son. And I thought: messed up family.

When we added two hours a day of piano practice I thought: I need to own who I really am. I’m a person who teaches my kids to cut corners. Here are my six principles of cutting corners:

1. Link your goals to your moral code so you know what rules you can break. 
I surprised myself when I was surrounded by music moms, but then I realized it’s like belonging to a synagogue that also recruits Asians. I surprised myself when I embraced the mantra of “music is not about speed,” but then I realized we were all racing when no one was watching.

I am no longer surprised by my particular brand of tiger mom parenting (with a healthy dose of Jewish-mother martyrdom and  Gen-X reverence for cynicism.) I’ll do whatever my kids need as long as I’m not doing something they will need to do for themselves in order to be a successful adult. So I write biology flashcards but I won’t make beds. Because people who make their bed every morning are happier people.

2. Work backwards to find the fastest way to meet your final goal.
My son decided he wants to do research. I started with the gods of high school science,  kids who won the Siemens prize, and I worked backwards – what did she do junior year? Sophomore year? Freshman year? How did she get to where she got to?

Every kid I investigated was working with a lab. I looked into high schoolers working in labs, and the consensus was that it’s a total pain in the butt for the professor.  My scientist professor friend told me it would be a six-month Festschrift to get legal clearance for a kid to work a lab. She said, “How about if he just comes in for a tour?”

3. Look for patterns among the winners.
I started looking more closely at the contest winners. Nearly all science competition winners have a parent who is a scientist. I should have known. This title is entirely representative of all the entries: Developing a computational model of blood platelets with fluid dynamics applications.

This is not baking soda and vinegar. This also is not particularly controversial. Even Science Buddies advises, “Most kids have a parent helping them, and often it’s a parent who is a scientist.” It hit me: this is the equivalent of moms writing a paper or moms practicing every note alongside the kid. Dads who oversee every tennis practice or dads who build their kid a lab.

4. Yes, the system’s unfair. Life’s unfair. Work with it to get power to change it.
Music is the same as science — at the top, it attracts kids who are privileged and then kids with musician parents have a big advantage.  String instruments and privilege are so intertwined that Harvard doesn’t even make note of an applicant who has been playing cello or violin their whole life because such a huge percentage of accepted candidates are in that category.

Overachievements in high school are just another way to separate kids who already have advantages from everyone else. The list of kids who placed in top competitions is also a list of the top twenty high-schools in the US.  It’s not just that kids who have parents who went to college are more likely to go to college. Kids who have parents who play an instrument are more likely to play an instrument. And kids who have a parent who’s a scientist are more likely to be a scientist. The lack of class mobility is deep.

5. The rich are different from you and me; they don’t seek change or challenge.
And we are not even talking here about the kids of the super-rich: there are few kids of super-rich who are committed and driven in a way that dominates life like string instruments and science labs. Intense commitment is boring, high-risk, and all-consuming. Why would anyone do that who is super rich?  The super-rich are so entrenched in their jet-setting, ski-sloping, island-owning lives that they don’t even worry about having high achieving kids.

6. Self-knowledge is the scissors of the corner-cutting class.
For my kids, their best hope of inherited privilege is cutting corners. So I was researching yesterday, trying again to figure out a way to cut a new path to the Siemens competition. And I discovered that the competition is canceled as of 2018. An announcement on the site explained:

Over the last few years we’ve taken a close look at changes in the U.S and the people, programs and expertise we have to address those needs and adjusted our investments accordingly. The growing momentum around our investments in workforce development, including through career and technical education, apprenticeships, and more, has affirmed our belief that moving forward in this direction provides the best opportunity for us to serve those in need. Addressing inequalities in economic opportunity and the vanishing middle-class of America is an area where we believe we can be an important part of the solution.

This is one of the most radical, disruptive, and life-affirming statements that I’ve read in a long time. Siemens is calling BS on the idea that we need to celebrate privileged kids leveraging their privilege. And Siemens is calling a spade a spade: it was a competition that reinforces a static class system.

The whole problem with our education system is that we celebrate achievements in systems that are rigged. Siemens is pulling the rug out from under all the people trying to leverage our lack of class mobility in order to benefit their kids. I am one of those people. And I confess to clicking Siemens’s list of alternative competitions.

25 replies
  1. JoanneBB
    JoanneBB says:

    I have judged science fair projects as a volunteer at the elementary school city level for a number of years, and I would absolutely agree with your findings. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but it would definitely come up in the interviews: “we went to my dad’s/mom’s lab” or “I interviewed my mom’s boss”, especially on the projects which had an experimental component. There are no volcanoes at the city level.

    Oh, and asking the students the “how did you get the idea for this project?” question… 10-11 year olds were pretty honest, and it was more likely to be “my dad thought …” then “my mom thought…”.

    (PS I’m an engineer, but my parents were an elementary school principal and a nurse (RN, she did her BSN while I was in school)… so post-secondary something was an expectation growing up.)

  2. Maria Miccoli
    Maria Miccoli says:

    Very cool article.

    I’ve mentioned homeschooling my daughter through high school. But before that, if there was a competition (like an essay contest in 4th grade), yes, I helped her by correcting her grammar. She won including cool prizes, then she associated winning with learning. After that, I was the mom who drove to stores to find the books, thrift stores to find the learning tools, including microscopes, and because we moved so much, it was all stored in large bins and we packed and unpacked and packed again.

    Musician come with their expensive tools of trade, their instruments. Like scientists who also came with their tools of trade as engineers and computer programmers.

    Today, with Youtube and smart phones or cheap laptops, any parent can encourage their children to learn just about anything. There are volcano kits, Dollarama sells solar robot kits for $4 aka the price of a latte.

    No, kids who excel have parents who want their kids to excel. Their helicopter parents give up TV time (as I did when I put the tv in the closet for a year) to take classes and both parent and child did homework sitting at the same table.

    Are there socio-economic advantages to parents with more higher degrees? Yes, I agree. Should we write off the other parents, but especially single moms who dedicate their child/parent bonding time to education?

    No, I know how hard it is.

    Read Kahil Gibran on children.

    My child is almost 30 years old. I am so ready for grandkids that I have been tutoring other people’s children. The first thing I do is take off the pressure. Then I make their lesson relatable.

  3. Erin
    Erin says:

    I 100% see that my artistic skills benefit my kids in a homeschool environment. I keep wanting to make more non artistic friends so that my kids have exposure to more turns of expertise. One such friend asked the other day to rewire my kitchen, then played with Phoebe and Clem using toolbox supplies while I baked cookies, relieved that have someone in my network who covers my blind spots.

  4. Ciara Byrne
    Ciara Byrne says:

    You can’t really blame people for cutting corners to benefit their kids in an unfair world. However, people who do leverage unfair advantages rarely try to fix them when they get the power to do so. The latter half of the title isn’t addressed at all in the article.

    • Kathleen
      Kathleen says:

      good point. Accumulating the power, money, or influence necessary to change the system from within is usually a false justification people embrace that allows them to take advantage of privilege they would otherwise feel guilty using. The problem becomes is there is no identifiable “top” — there is always a “future” where disruption will feel less risky, or more money will provide additional security, or some other reason another person is better positioned than you to be the one to change the system once you get there.

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        Humans are compensating machines. We use an unfair advantage to get ahead, and then we compensate: forget where we came from, make the now the new normal. Then we use the next unfair advantage we find to get ahead from that spot.

        In today’s meritocracy, the number of unfair advantages deriving from privilege are stunning.

        Unfair advantages include not only full-time parents doing half your work for you, and scientist dads giving you themes for competitions, and thousands of dollars in string lessons, but five figure tutoring budgets to help kids (with the help of legacy admissions) get into incredibly expensive colleges and prep schools that some people can pay cash for and others can’t afford. You can beef up those name-brand university degrees with unpaid internships poor kids can’t afford to do, and find a job through your old boys’ network… It’s hardly a wonder social mobility is so low in the US.

        The title should be truncated. Maybe “Leverage Unfair Advantages FTW.”

          • Bostonian
            Bostonian says:

            Being Einstein isn’t the goal of leveraging unfair advantages. Being Ned Johnson is.

            Einstein’s top salary at Princeton was only 178K, corrected for inflation. That wouldn’t even pay for kids in private school.

    • Jack
      Jack says:

      It is not addressed because it cannot be fixed. The usual definition of unfair advantage is: someone else has knowledge and resources that I do not have.

      Someone might be able to curtail the blatant abuse of wealth and power, but all other differences will still exist.

      • Karelys Beltran
        Karelys Beltran says:


        I think the answer that gets us closer is: interdependence.

        You see a school of fish. They work together to escape the shark coming to eat them.

        They don’t follow a rule or script like in the army. They are basically looking out for themselves.

        Same with birds flying.

        They stay about a foot from each other to use each other to cut the wind resistance.
        There is no agreement. They’ve just figured out the optimal distance to serve themselves off each other. Too far, wind resistance too much. Too close, they have to share space in a detrimental way.
        Flying alone? probably gonna die soon.

        When there’s interdependence among humans, the system is a game and there are always nooks and crannies that will work to your advantage. But to reach it? To reap the benefits? it’s often the smart use of each others’ strengths, rather than fully changing the system that is keeping you from reaching the goods you want.

  5. carol of kensington
    carol of kensington says:

    There is no way to type how much I love you. Thank you for saying what you do. Our family basement was a huge workroom for dad. Mom got a teeny corner for the clothes cleaning scenario. We grew up making things with him and respecting all men who are good at making things by hand.

  6. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    Good posting. Interesting links. As with some previous, I’m not sure why this is in career rather than education, since it seems mostly to talk about educating your children.

    I’m interested when you say you practice cello three hours a day with your son. Do you play your own cello? Or do you not play yourself, but instead comment continually on his phrasing, intonation, rhythm, etc.? Or do you sit there looking at your watch and making sure your kid is meeting your time demands while producing constant sound? Does your son sometimes get to encounter the music without you there?

    I found the part about the science competitions very interesting. Siemens’ refusal to participate in the rigged system any more is fascinating and significant.

  7. sarah
    sarah says:

    Maybe its my poor mentality – or maybe its because I was raised in a high controlling enviroment, but I don’t get it. I don’t get why what ever your kids do they have to be The Best. Why can’t they just do something they love without being pushed? Two hours of piano? Entering into the highest science prize? I don’t see the difference between pushing them in these areas vs pushing them to get good grades. I was pushed alot and really resented it. I partied with the kids who were pushed so hard, I’ve seen them self destruct. I was extreamly poor, but always have befriended rich kids – obviously graduating from whitefish mt, but even before then I did. So, maybe its my poor mentality that can’t see the bennifit.

    • Karelys Beltran
      Karelys Beltran says:

      I think that if you go back and read the blog and all the parenting posts, you’ll realize it’s an agreement with her kids. She’s offered for them to drop cello and piano and whatever. They don’t want to. They want accountability. They want their mom chugging along with them. It gets hard. For everyone. But at least everyone is together doing the hard thing.

    • Anonymous
      Anonymous says:

      To those asking why parents push their kids… You probably grew up in a well-off family.

      The rest of us push our kids so that when they grow up, they can afford to have kids, eat basic healthy food, see a doctor, take one or two modest vacations as adults, and retire someday into something other than abject poverty.

      There are only two practical tracks in America for the coming generations: the elite, long-lived track and the hungry, died-young track. We want the former for our kids if at all possible. Being exceptional at nine is certainly no fun, but it beats opioid addiction, lack of medical care, trailer park, and death by 35.

  8. Karelys Beltran
    Karelys Beltran says:

    “I am no longer surprised by my particular brand of tiger mom parenting (with a healthy does of Jewish-mother martyrdom and Gen-X reverence for cynicism.)”

    I need emoji’s in the comment section because I have no words to applaud your writing.

    I love this so much.

  9. harris497
    harris497 says:

    Guilt about being privileged is a waste of an emotion. Do something to correct the perceived imbalance. When nothing is done, the guilt turns to hatred of the source, and the problems of the source are attributed to its intrinsic lack of worth.
    Provide bootstraps as you are able. It can be messy and uncomfortable, but ultimately rewarding.

  10. jessica
    jessica says:

    I met with an angel group that are focused on the vocational skills application and training space. There is a lot of recent research on this and currently zero government funding, so behind the scenes a lot of money to be made re-educating the workforce and those entering the workforce. This might be where they are directing their investment funds.

  11. Janice
    Janice says:

    You don’t make their beds? Bfd. You do all but wipe their hineys. I think your son would’ve practiced a lot even without you. Not every success story has a tiger parent. You’re just too insecure to see that. The stem in schools is so lame. And you’ll probably use a Spanish name to steal a spot from some poor Asian kid. Many Asian success stories are middle class. It’s called hard work. The middle class is NOT vanishing. Well meaning rich people are keeping a poor underclass with no fathers and welfare. I’m living right near it so until you’re knee deep in it you’ll never understand the issue. You would NOT sympathize with 85% of these people.

  12. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt says:

    My daughter and her homeschooled team won the Siemens Regional competition at MIT, and went on the NYC to participate in the finals. It was an experience we won’t ever forget – and required two scientist/engineer/homeschool moms putting in billions of hours doing everything from secretarial work to polishing their speaking skills with endless sessions of coaching. It was a ball for all of us. The girls did the science, of course.

    As my daughter said later, “Once you have had the chance to talk to Nobel laureates about your own project, few things are scary.” (paraphrase – I’m terrible at remembering exact words.

    Sorry you missed the chance to try, but are your kids really that into science? Good luck with the alternatives.

  13. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    It really is a fine line as to the extent the parent should involve themselves in their child’s learning process. It’s necessary to provide guidelines and resources for their success and yet not get too involved where their work is being done for them and decisions are being made for them. Anya Kamenetz published an article ( https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2018/07/24/628042168/the-over-parenting-crisis-in-school-and-at-home ) titled ‘The ‘Over-Parenting Crisis’ In School And At Home’ today on this topic of ‘over-parenting’ over at NPREd where she interviewed two authors. The two authors make some very good points about the extent which is healthy for parent, teacher, and school involvement in a child’s learning. A quote from the article – “The books make strikingly similar claims about today’s youth and their parents: Parents are “too worried about [their children’s] future achievements to allow [them] to work through the obstacles in their path” (Lahey) and “students who seemed increasingly reliant on their parents in ways that felt, simply, off,” (Lythcott-Haims).”
    Later in the article is mention of a “Resilience Project” at Stanford. Resilience is a good skill to learn and develop before going to a college or university. I did a quick search and found videos of the “Resilience Project” at Stanford at https://learningconnection.stanford.edu/resilience-project/resilience-project-videos and a list of recent articles and resources on resilience at https://learningconnection.stanford.edu/recent-articles .

  14. Cari
    Cari says:

    If it’s not science or string instruments, trust me it’s another activity that has us over involved in our kids lives. So many parents, myself included, are trying to do whatever is necessary to make sure our kids don’t fail in life. I will admit that I’ve lost my sense of parenting reality. This unspoken, but well known parenting competition has lead me to react irrationally about school work, a standardized test, a competition, and EVERYTHING else.

    But you know what it’s really about….fear. Fear of our own failure. Fear that if you don’t push your kids, spend every minute coaching them, and provide endless opportunities to be great, that your child will not be as good as somebody else’s. And that is a reality that is so sad on many levels for our children. I’m guilty… and I’m fully aware that I will be paying for years of therapy for my adult child to recover from my inability to control MY fear.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I really appreciate your honesty. The more we hear each other being honest about education challenges the more honest we can be ourselves.


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