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Parents spending more time with teens, college race blamed

Two economists who work 2,274 miles away have identified the essence of parenthood in the Washington area since 1995. It turns out we have been spending all that time with our older children — chauffeuring, applauding, coordinating, correcting, planning, obsessing — because we have a deep need to beat the other stressed-out parents in getting our kids into good colleges.

The researchers are Garey and Valerie A. Ramey, a married couple at the University of California-San Diego. They have done the hyper-active parent thing themselves and have a son at Stanford University to show for it. They also admit that most of this exhaustive parenting is done not by men but by women, including, by her own account, Ms. Ramey herself. To sum up, college-graduate soccer moms are trying to outdo all the other soccer moms to get their children into a good school so their daughters can repeat the cycle with their own children.

The Rameys met at the University of Arizona, where both graduated summa cum laude. They are brainy academics who like playful labels, so their study is titled “The Rug Rat Race.” They cite national time-use surveys to show that between 1995 and 2000 the hours spent by college-educated women caring for or handling travel and activities for their older children increased from 6.6 to 10 a week. This was driven, they say, by the “increasingly severe cohort crowding at quality schools” like the University of Pennsylvania, Rice University or UCSD. “Increased scarcity of college slots appears to have heightened rivalry among parents, taking the form of more hours spent on college preparatory activities,” they conclude.

We knew this, of course. But it is nice to have the meaning of all that driving confirmed by economists. If they win the Nobel Prize we can claim a share.

Take me, for example. The youngest Mathews turned 11 in 1995, after both her brothers had left home. The years that followed are still a blur, but I recall sneaking out of work a lot. Reporters have many excuses for being hard to reach. Katie took care of her school work herself. But my wife and I took her to soccer practice, basketball practice and softball practice, that last sport becoming her favorite. We traveled to other states for tournaments. We stayed in strange motels. We choked on the dust from batting cages. We cheered. We commiserated.

All that time I told myself I was having fun. I was not good at games when I was her age. I loved watching my daughter, with her mother’s well-coordinated genes, hitting line drives over left fielders. I also enjoyed our many college visits.

But my entertainment is not the issue, the Rameys insist. Surveys suggest parents on average do not consider caring for or hauling their kids that much of a kick. Time use studies in Canada, where students rarely compete for admission to prestigious national universities, reveal educated parents are spending about the same number of hours with their kids as they did in the mid-1980s, while educated U.S. parents, spurred by college competition, are spending much more time with their children now.

Don’t fret. The Rameys say our time was not wasted. “The Rug Rat Race provides a useful stimulus to human capital investment,” they said. Translation: These activities were good for our kids. While I have no survey data to prove it, I think they were also good for us. We don’t see Katie so much any more, but we have warm memories of what it was like to drive the car and sit in the stands and be a regular part of her life.

Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

Follow all the Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page, http://washingtonpost.com/education.

By Jay Mathews  | April 4, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Garey and Valerie Ramey, college competition influence U.S. parents, parents spending more time with teens  
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Comments

you wrote: "...but I recall sneaking out of work a lot..."

And taking your children out of school a lot. Guess who picked up a lot of the slack for you, and whose efforts on your behalf have been unreported, unrecognized and unappreciated? That would be your child's teachers who you demanded put in extra time for your child so he could "make up" the work.

Did you ever at least say "Thank you". Or offer to do something that would help lighten their load.

I have to confess, Jay. I didn't really care that much whether your child got into the school of his choice: Rice, UCSD (Harvard, Yale anyone?) I was much more concerned about other students whose mommies and daddies were working 3 jobs and really needed my time to get them into the local community college.

Posted by: altaego60 | April 5, 2010 7:22 AM | Report abuse

Interesting study, I am wondering how they can attribute the added time spent on the children to competition among mothers to see who wins the competitive college race. As you say, you enjoyed the time spent with your daughter, but it sounds as if the Ramey's are pretty certain that enjoyment is not the reason why most parents invest the time. I think that's sad and hope that it is simply the projection of their own attitudes and not generally true of most parents.

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Posted by: xiciaoscis1 | April 5, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

There are so many variables -- time spent driving, choice of extra-curricular activities, projection of anxieties -- it's hard to get at the researchers' main point.
The columnist and the authors use pejorative terms, implying that parents wanting to "get" their kids into college are pushy and anxious.
I recall the exciting, anxious period when my daughters were in middle school and high school and we wondered if they would get college scholarships, etc. (I had no doubt they could get accepted to a good university, but I was worried about my ability to pay for it.)
My first-born graduated high school in 1992 and got her PhD in biology from a top school 10 years later. Now she's working on research to cure cancer. :-)
Did our encouragement at her track meets make a difference? Or was it the summer enrichment programs when she was 10 (where I insisted she choose at least one science or math activity along with her favorite, drama)? Or was it her high school (the only black-majority public high school in the state with 15 AP courses. She was a minority in the school.)?
Chill, people. Are we now engaged in a competition over who is the most competitive?

Posted by: lagibby1 | April 5, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

@altaego60... BRAVO!!! I actually stood up at my desk and applauded your comment, especially the last paragraph! BRAVO!!!

All of Jay's educational articles are skewed by his own DC pretentious privilege. He's had me seething for years over his inability to see the true educational heroes... those kids and parents that can neither BUY their way in or ride the gravy train of class-specific scholarships. There is a whole class of kids/families stuck in the middle. As one of them, I want to say "thank you" to you, altaego60, as a representative of those rare teachers, for noticing and giving of your time and attention to the ones who truly need it.

PS This isn't my first thank you. When my son graduated, one of his teachers told me I was the only parent who ever wrote her a thank you note. That flabbergasted me!

Posted by: kirsten2 | April 5, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

for altaigo60 and kirsten2---Please tell me more. I may have gotten up too early today and am unusually slow-witted, but I don't understand your comments. My kids didn't miss a minute of school for these activities. That would have appalled me, if you have seen many various rants about anything that gets in the way of class time. And my wife and I thanked their teachers a lot. The activities I mentioned all occurred after school, on weekends or during vacations. So help me understand what you are saying.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 5, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

@altaego60 ...

While I *certainly* share your desire for teachers to be thanked properly for the important work that they do, I think you're not exactly on the nose here.

Didn't Jay's kids go to Sidwell? I doubt there are many three-job-parent, community-college-bound kids there.

Posted by: mccxxiii | April 5, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

UCSD is a "quality" school ? Yes, I'm being snarky, but I'd put it in 2nd/3rd tier.. Not in the same league as Penn.

Posted by: k5user | April 5, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

I'm a little puzzled about the rants.

I understand the points about parents struggling to hold down jobs and help their kids through school, etc., but that wasn't what the post was about.

It was centered around a particular study, which focused on college-educated, professional parents who feel pressured to "get" their kids into prestigious colleges. And he ultimately agreed with the authors of the study, that although the "race" they describe might be an unfortunate development among the more privileged classes, the extra time spent with kids was a positive thing.

Perhaps a passionate-yet-polite suggestion for another column on their topic of choice--certainly a worthy one--might serve the ranters better than ad hominem attacks?

Posted by: JCR7 | April 5, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

As a graduate of UCSD (1975) and high school teacher in Tairfax County, I must say that I generall agree with this study. Admission to schools like UCSD has become extremely competitive. When I graduated in '75, this was not the case. The one thing I question is the extent to which moms are more involved than dads in this process. Perhaps this is the case, but it was not so with our two kids. We both recognized the importance of gaining admission to a good school and did what we could to make this a reality for our two sons. I wonder if others have an thoughts on this. Is it really just the "soccer moms" spending time helping with college applications and driving to college visits? Or is this just more politically correct sloganeering designed to sell books? Comments?

Posted by: maximus12 | April 5, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

What's the impact of demographics? There are many more moms today who are college graduates (especially alumnae of selective colleges) than in the past. Many of the top colleges did not become co-ed until the late 1960's or early '70's. Their alumnae also tended to start their families later than their mothers' generation did. My mom was way ahead of the curve in having her first child at 23. Most of her Berkeley classmates did not have babies until they were in their very late 20's to early 30's.

When did my mom's generation of female college graduates start having middle-school aged kids? Right, that would be the mid-90's. Just when the study noticed a change in parenting.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | April 5, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

I went to Stanford. Then I went back to Stanford Law. Though looking back I'm grateful and I realize people are literally driving themselves nuts to have the opportunity I had. But still, this whole thing is depressing. It makes me sad. It's sad this counts as quality child-parent time.

Would I dare take my kids out of this stupid race, let them know they're loved no matter what, and in the long run, they'll be ok unless they really try to #$%!@ up...and having done that, would realize I could still look in the mirror and call myself a good father? I hope so.

As smug and privileged as kids seemed there, a good number of them aren't all that happy. No wonder. Jeez.

See study done by the University on student mental health at:
http://news.stanford.edu/pr/2008/pr-mhstory-100108.html

Posted by: RunAwayFarAway | April 5, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

There is a bigger issue here that has been discussed when looking at this research, and it's how this additional time spent on the college application and resume padding process has further widened the disparity in college access between families with means and those without. This is not to cast blame on families who spend time ensuring that their children get time to develop outside skills and spend time on enrichment, take test prep classes and the rest. The challenge is that there are so many low income families whose schools provide no extra curriculars on site, who can not afford SAT or ACT test prep courses, who can't pay for expensive community service programs to burnish their applications. In addition, many of their high schools do not even offer the rigorous classes such as APs or an IB program that many middle class and wealthier children have in their schools. This is a societal challenge, especially when their families do not have flexibility for one parent to stay at home or to create customized work hours. The question is how do we address yet another disparity that further affects the achievement gap?

Posted by: emilymb1 | April 5, 2010 10:18 PM | Report abuse

@kirsten2 I have always felt sorry for the families who are "stuck in the middle", so to speak. Especially in the DC area.

I'm talking about families whose household income is in the $100k-$130k range or so. It's enough to keep most financial aid out of reach, but certainly not enough to pay for expensive colleges.

Heck, even without college, that doesn't go very far around here if you want to live somewhat close to DC.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | April 6, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

We are college students attending The Community College of Baltimore County, I remember when I was in high school the craziness that would happen when students were applying for colleges and how demanding it was to fill out the paper work and then the wide range of schools to chose from. Nowadays it is true that parents are giving their children less responsibility and more time to do extra after school activities so that they have things to show on their transcripts. Parents do enjoy cheering the kids on because it gives them confidence in whatever they are doing. The planning for college begins when there in middle school and only gets worse once you hit ninth and tenth which are the most important, because junior and senior year are just a finalization of where you’re going.

Posted by: ladiesccbc | April 6, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

I'm wondering if this extreme parental attention has any impact on University performance. These days, it seems to me, that students are less capable of juggling multiple activities and indeed, less capable of self-motivation when it comes to academic work. They seem to require constant attention, monitoring, and extremely directed instructions. They seem to believe that it is the job of the adults around them to make sure that all they need for their work is always available. It's not that my students are bad, but they seem highly dependent on staff-- and the electronic access makes it so that requests come pouring in all the time. Meanwhile, students endeavouring to juggle more than one task inevitably ask for extensions.

Again, I'm not saying they are bad students, but there is a developing quality of dependence and what initially seemed like laziness growing in the ranks. I wonder if this has to do with the presence of parents so invested in the entire process that the students never developed the skills to function alone.

I'm not writing my best, I'm afraid, but there is something in this blog post that seems linked with the present standard of student, a student who seems all too dependent on adults around them, assuming that we are there now to replace the management function of their parents. (This is something like the 'snowflake' phenomenon observed by many Uni professionals.)

Admissions 101 and Class Struggle are so interested in getting into University, but I wonder if there shouldn't be some attention granted to what happens in University. Are the demands to get into school eroding the skills-building activity to be able to function once there?

Posted by: Hunterwali | April 7, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

bslaxin3,

I do agree with Jay on this article because being a parent of a college student I do have to ride him to all his classes and make arrangements for him to be picked up from school. Due to the fact, that I have recently gone back to school. However he attends a community college close by so there were no arrangements for housing and such. My son also plays sports for his school and that is more time needed out of my schedule so I can make sure that he gets to his practices and games. I really enjoy our time together being as though he is growing up and moving forward with life. I am very proud of him he does very well in his classes and I am sure he will have a promising future. With all that being said I will start looking around for a cheap car for my son, therefore we both will have a lot more free time. My chauffeuring days are coming to an end.

Posted by: bslaxin3 | April 8, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Hunterwali that the extra parental attention does have an impact on the student’s performance in school. It is very true that students are starting to have more on their plates and feel less motivated to want to go to school and work on their academic work.

Posted by: ladiesccbc | April 8, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Bslaxin3 wrote: 'being a parent of a college student I do have to ride him to all his classes and make arrangements for him to be picked up from school'

Why? Why does Bslaxin3 'have to' do the work of the student for him? This is precisely the problem that I'm getting at. Too many students are incapable of managing on their own, demanding that their parents, or any adult in their field, tend to all the details of managing the project of a university education.

This is not helping students, this is hurting them as their competence and adulthood are being delayed if not entirely impeded. I'm not sure what bright future one can see for a student who is incapable of juggling a schedule, managing travel arrangements, doing his academic work and holding a job at the same time.

It's actually quite disturbing-- forget the university performances that I now see; like many of my colleagues, I am thinking about the future here. What kind of world are people building?


Posted by: Hunterwali | April 9, 2010 4:29 AM | Report abuse

Once again in agreement with Hunterwali, why if a student is in college does anyone need to drive them anywhere, first they should be driving and second you as a parent need to let your child grow up because otherwise they will never be able to take care of them if you’re always helping them out. It’s good to be on your own you learn more and need to be out in the real world and live your life. You don’t need your parents running your life when you in your late teens.

Posted by: ladiesccbc | April 9, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Well first off how do you know what the family situation is here in our family or in any other family out there? Some might not be able to afford cars or they might have gotten in some criminal trouble like a dui and they cannot drive. So for you to comment on that they should be independent maybe in your world or you family they can but look around not everyone lives in the perfect world!!! Also for you to say what kind of world are people building? I think you have this one mind sent on your own opinion that you actually do not look around the world and see what people might be going through!!

Posted by: bslaxin3 | April 9, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

bslaxin3, I appreciate that many issues emerge, but at the same time, your post fails to explain how all these issues become the parents' responsibility. I did not have a car (could not afford one) but in no case did that mean that anyone was obliged to chauffeur me. It meant I found my way around through public transport. And cycling. And other ways. If I had not been able to drive for criminal reasons, I am not sure that my parents would have opted to make my life easier-- certainly not at the expense of their time.
Moreover, I was working and making my own arrangements. I put myself through school so I'd beware the assumptions being made. The fact is, there are people (adult people) who encounter any number of challenges in their lives without having parents to manage every step. So no, it's not about living in a perfect world-- it's about equipping children, adult children, to manage the vagaries of this imperfect world.

Posted by: Hunterwali | April 9, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

bslaxin3, I appreciate that many issues emerge, but at the same time, your post fails to explain how all these issues become the parents' responsibility. I did not have a car (could not afford one) but in no case did that mean that anyone was obliged to chauffeur me. It meant I found my way around through public transport. And cycling. And other ways. If I had not been able to drive for criminal reasons, I am not sure that my parents would have opted to make my life easier-- certainly not at the expense of their time.
Moreover, I was working and making my own arrangements. I put myself through school so I'd beware the assumptions being made. The fact is, there are people (adult people) who encounter any number of challenges in their lives without having parents to manage every step. So no, it's not about living in a perfect world-- it's about equipping children, adult children, to manage the vagaries of this imperfect world.

Posted by: Hunterwali | April 9, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

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