Right now, in admissions offices in Cambridge and New Haven and Palo Alto, the teenage children of some of America’s most thoughtful and devoted mothers are coming in for exceptionally close scrutiny—as is, so these women feel, the parenting they have offered their youngsters for the past 18 years. This is the tail end of reading season, when our august universities must turn to what their relentless high-school visiting and U.S. News & World Report boosterism have wrought: a staggering number of requests for an absurdly small number of spots at their schools. Harvard recently announced that this year it is considering an astronomical 35,000 applications for only about 1,640 spaces in the freshman class. The great hope of today’s professional-class parents—whose offspring still make up the majority at elite colleges, no matter how much progress the institutions have made in widening the socioeconomic range of their student bodies—was that the ebbing of the so-called echo boom would save their children from the heartless winnowing. The late 1990s and the 2000s saw an uptick in the number of teenagers in America, and there was a belief, in many quarters, that the increasingly competitive nature of elite-college admissions was a by-product of that demographic fluke. But now, although the number of teens has receded, the percentage of those kids who nurture the dream of attending a selective college continues to skyrocket. And so, for this year’s most accomplished and talented high-school seniors, the reckoning is at hand.
But we were talking about the mothers—the good mothers. The good mothers went to Brown, and they read The Drama of the Gifted Child, and they feel things very deeply, and they love their children in a way that is both complicated and primal, and they will make any sacrifice for them. They know that it takes a lot of time to nurture and guide a child—and also that time is fleeting, and that the bliss of having your kids at home is painfully short-lived—and so most of them have cut back on their professional aspirations in significant ways. The good mothers have certain ideas about how success in life is achieved, and these ideas have been sizzled into their brains by popularizers such as Joseph Campbell and Oprah Winfrey, and they boil down to this: everyone has at least one natural talent (the good mothers call it a “passion”), and creativity, effortless success, and beaucoup dinero flow not from banging your head against the closed door of, say, organic chemistry if you’re not that excited by it, but from dwelling deeply and ecstatically inside the thing that gives you the most pleasure. But you shouldn’t necessarily—or under any circumstances, actually—follow your bliss in a way that keeps you out of Yale. Because Yale is important, too! So important. The good mothers believe that their children should be able to follow their passions all the way to New Haven, Connecticut, and this obdurate belief of theirs is the reason so many of them (Obama voters, Rosa Parks diorama co-creators, gay-rights supporters, champions, in every conceivable way, of racial diversity and tolerance) are suddenly ready to demand restoration of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Because Amy Chua has revealed, in so many blunt and horrifying words, why the good mothers are getting spanked, and why it’s only going to get worse.
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You should know that the good mothers have been mad—and getting madder—for quite a while now. The good mothers believe that something is really wrong with the hypercompetitive world of professional-class child rearing, whose practices they have at once co-created and haplessly inherited. The good mothers e-blast each other New York Times articles about overscheduled kids and the importance of restructuring the AP curriculum so that it encourages more creative thinking. They think that the college-admissions process is “soul crushing.” One thing the good mothers love to do—something they undertake with the same “fierce urgency of now” with which my mom used to protest the Vietnam War—is organize viewings of a documentary called Race to Nowhere. Although the movie spends some time exploring the problems of lower-income students, it is most lovingly devoted to a group of neurasthenic, overworked, cracking-at-the-seams kids from a wealthy suburb in Northern California, whom we see mooning around the enormous kitchens of their McMansions and groaning about sleeplessness and stress. It posits that too much homework can give your child stomach pains, chronic anxiety, anhedonia.