If there was any doubt in your mind that the “cult of the child” is not a reality (and a disturbing one, at that), you are hereby required to watch the documentary Nursery University. The film follows several groups of parents in New York City who are frantically and obsessively trying to get their two- and three-year-old children into the elite nursery schools in the city, because they assume that starting out at the best nursery school will lead to the best elementary school which will lead to the best high school which will lead to the Ivy League. It is amazing how much emphasis these parents put on starting their children’s education on the right foot when their children aren’t even fully potty-trained yet, and what lengths they will go to in order to get their kids accepted into their (the parents’) first choice school. It is also horrifying. (Although, there is one particularly hilarious scene where one of the couples sits down to open the decision letters, and the husband explains to his wife, who is a native Argentinian, that big envelope packets usually mean acceptance, while little envelopes mean rejection. The wife then opens and reads aloud each of the seven little envelopes, all of which are acceptance letters.)
Throughout the whole film, my feelings were split between understanding these parents on an emotional level, and thinking they were just batty. I really do feel like all of the parents in this film had their hearts in the right place, and were willing to spare no expense (some NYC nursery schools cost $20,000 per semester!) in order to give their children every opportunity to succeed, which is really admirable. And I suppose it’s never too early to get a head-start on education. But at the same time, it worries me how early these parents are beginning to micromanage their children’s lives. There is no conclusive evidence that shows that children who attend a prestigious nursery school (if there even is such a thing) will go on to attend a prestigious college, and it takes a lot of the fun and frivolity out of being a kid when you’re being groomed for college before you’re even out of the crib. And if parents start micromanaging their kids at a young age, it sets a precedent of micromanagement that inhibits a child’s abilities to make their own mature decisions without parental intervention, and can keep them in a state of permanent infantility (Betty Friedan definitely talks about this in The Feminine Mystique). Also, there is the danger that these rich families that use nursery school as a funnel into the Ivy League are just furthering the nepotism of the private school network that seems to be especially heinous on the East Coast, teaching their children that having connections is the most important thing instead of working hard and earning their success. (In the film, one of the nursery schools did a random drawing to choose who would attend, which I thought was a wonderful way to go about it: it levels the playing field, so that no matter who has the most money or the best connections, everyone has an equal chance. I wish all schools were like that; it would make it so much easier for able students, who happen to be poor, to go on to higher education.) Money and connections can only get you so far before you have to actually prove yourself worthy. Just ask George W. Bush.
Basically every film I see is an opportunity for me to mine some future parenting skills, and I feel like this film gives me both sides of the spectrum, positive and negative. I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on this topic of over-parenting and education obsession.