Avoiding Ivy League Preschool Syndrome

Better Parenting with Hot Glue

One of the big inspirations for my recent article on Complainypants Disease was the comments section of a mainstream newspaper article about some semi-early retirees that was recently forwarded to me by a few readers.

Don’t waste your time reading through more than a few of the comments, because they’ll make you punch a hole in your computer monitor. There were about 500 of them at the time of writing, and at least 75% were written by Ultracomplainers expressing some version of the following message:

“What!? These people are lying about being retired!!…  and besides, the only reason they could do this is because they didn’t have any KIDS!!! Waaah! Waaaah!”.

The funny part is, the article was about a couple who lives on close to $40,000 per year. By my standards, that is a lavish Prince Alaweed bin Talal lifestyle, seeing how my own family WITH a kid leads a guilt-inducingly fancy lifestyle with a current annual cost of about $24k (plus the implicit subsidy of having our house paid off).

So why do people think kids are so expensive to raise? They weren’t expensive to raise for most of the history of our species, or even most of the tiny slice of history since the Industrial Revolution. But now, all of a sudden people think it costs a million dollars to raise a child, which is equal in most of these  U.S. News commenters’ mathematically challenged minds to “a million dollars per year”, which is also equivalent to “more than anyone can afford, regardless of income, Waaah, Waaah!”.

I believe this misconception is due to a disease spreading through the middle class that I call “Ivy Leage Preschool Syndrome”.

In earlier times, parents considered themselves lucky to have enough food from their own farm’s harvest to feed their children. Even more fortunate parents had time to allow their kids to attend the one room schoolhouse and get a job that paid more than farming. Public schools improved and work modernized, and pretty soon every kid went to school. Women dramatically increased their participation in the workforce and with perfect timing, consumer culture dramatically expanded the material desires of these parents to allow the increased family income to be poured into more luxury spending disguised as necessities – instead of more leisure time.

And now, here we are, when today’s parents believe they need a 7-passenger SUV for the “safety” of their children, they need to take trips to Disneyland for family entertainment, and they need to put their kids into exclusive private schools and even fancy preschools, as well as horseback and violin lessons from trained professionals in various surrounding towns,  in order to keep them ahead in “the increasingly competitive world out there”. By pure coincidence, all of these needs happen to be very expensive ones that clever entrepreneurs and companies are making a lot of money from.

Did you ever notice how you never see a strong international trend of parents spending more time with their kids, or people canceling their TV service and reading more, or local parks and natural areas becoming increasingly flooded with parents playing with their children? Hmm.. why is this? Is it because we’ve learned that these activities are not good for our kids so we have wised up and replaced them with organized and expensive activities? Or is it because nobody is making money off of these alternative ways and nobody gets to look rich doing them, and thus the Marketing and Social Competition Engine is not tricking us into doing them?

Mr. Money Mustache is once again going to be the first one to fart in the quiet room by saying, “IT’S ALL BULLSHIT!!! YOU DON’T HAVE TO SIGN YOUR KIDS UP TO DO EXPENSIVE THINGS IN ORDER FOR THEM TO REACH THEIR FULL POTENTIAL!!”

First of all, it is not an increasingly competitive world out there. It’s an increasingly complicated and more rapidly changing one, but when it boils down to it we are still a friendly species who likes to spend time and achieve things together, and we’re more productive than ever. If you can raise your kid to enjoy hard work and value constant learning, and enjoy working with other people, he or she will KICK ASS IN THE WORLD, both economically, and more importantly, from a life satisfaction perspective.

So when people spend all night in line for the privilege of signing their kid up for a $30,000 per year preschool, so they will qualify to get into the right kindergarten, then elementary, middle, and preparatory high school, so they can get into a specific Ivy League University.. I think they are wasting their time and money.

If your child gets a top-flight education, he or she will indeed be challenged and surrounded by other mostly-rich and driven children. This will indeed lead to better lifetime networking opportunities and a greatly increased chance of earning $500,000 per year in his 20s, and several million per year at the peak of his career.

Meanwhile, if your kid goes to your local public school and the nearest state university, in a good field, he’ll be more likely to start out with just a regular job, and on average make the equivalent of $40,000-$100,000 after graduation, rising steadily based mostly on accomplishment and ambition. Of course, many of the most successful entrepreneurs don’t even graduate from college at all, but for the sake of argument, let’s still give the massive earning advantage to the Ivy Leaguers.

Do you think the $500k earner will be happier, or have a better life? Most people would say “hell yeah”, because they incorrectly equate income with happiness.

I would say “hell no”, because I have seen the trials and hardships of both the Ivy Leaguers and Public Leaguers long after they graduate and become real adults. Once a person covers their basic needs of food and shelter, additional income just goes to the false idols of luxury purchasing. Which doesn’t make you any happier. Folks in the privileged class just get to buy a lot more stuff earlier, and they are trained to work longer hours in their careers. In the end, they are just more effective consuming machines. Big deal!

Both people mentioned above have the opportunity to lead a happy and productive life, and even to attain early riches and retirement if they happen to discover The Way of the Money Mustache early on. The real opportunity to win in life is in having good relationships with other people, as well as getting started early on having an effective philosophy of life, and gaining more autonomy and the opportunity to create work that you are proud of.

If you use your mind when doing it, raising a kickass kid Costs Next To Nothing in the grand scheme of a rich-country person’s expensesBy my own calculations, the cost already starts out low (food, education, health care), and then is vastly subsidized by the fact that raising my child takes so much time that it keeps me from having time to spend money on myself.

Before parenthood, my wife and I used to go out to restaurants about once a week, take expensive snowboarding trips and jet around to places like Australia and Italy and Mexico. We bought ourselves cars, computers, stereo equipment, motorcycles, as well as filling our first house with furniture and appliances.

But now as parents, we realize that our kid doesn’t give a shit about any of that stuff. So we’ve stopped being as interested in it as well.  Now we check out books from the library (about 25 per week on average), watch science documentaries on Netflix, bike down to the creek to make ever-more ambitious dams from the round river rocks and sand, and we sit in a sunny patch on the garage floor with the hot glue gun, and make robots out of scrap metal parts that we find sitting around in my tool boxes (see headline picture for this article).

Our son goes to the public school that is a 5 minute bike ride away from our house, a school that is often passed over by the Ivy-League-Preschool set that occupies the other high-priced homes of our neighborhood. Ours is a school where about 40% of the kids come in with English as their second language, which seemed very exciting to all three of us in the MMM family. I only learned later that this statistic is considered undesirable to most high-income parents, because somehow they have caught the Disease that tricks people into thinking that the expensive and exclusive options are better than free or cheap ones.

The kid is off to a great start in his school life, turning out to have unusual abilities in many academic areas, and I believe a big factor in this is the fact that we have not given him the traditional rich-kid upbringing. We hang around mostly in a 2-mile area surrounding our home and play with kids that happen to live nearby. We don’t have TV, and somehow the boy has no desire for products and toys that he doesn’t already have.

If he’s interested in lessons of any sort, we prioritize the ones that are within biking distance, and as a group we would probably hesitate to sign up for something in a far-off town unless it was to address a life-threatening disorder.

“But wait!”, the rich might say, “You’re denying your kid the violin and horseback lessons just because you’re Cheap!”

Wrong again, fellow rich people. For a child in our country, Educational activities are in absolute abundance. Everywhere you look, there is too much exciting stuff to learn! It’s just like adult leisure: there are far too many options, so you might as well pick the ones that are free, and offer the most benefit.

A key part of this whole Excellent Childhood deal is YOU. I usually spend about 6 hours a day just playing and learning with my son. I view myself as one of those automated tour guide devices that you can walk around with in a museum – except I’m available to him wherever we are in life.

“Why did the water in the creek flood this dam we made yesterday, Dada?”

“Well, did you notice how it’s hot outside today? Look at the thermometer on my watch – 86 degrees Fahrenheit, or 30 Celsius. Now look up into the mountains where this creek is coming from? What do you think is happening to the snow on a hot day like today?”.

Isn’t that FUN? .. Just from random hanging out and playing, we have had opportunities to discuss the water cycle, the workings of every major part of a house and car, the biology of plants, animals, and insects, the entire solar system including each planet and its moons, the earth’s ecosystem, oceans, weather, feelings and psychology, culture and alternatives to violence, reading, math.. and I have no idea of the whole list, I just find that these things tend to come up, even if you’re just playing with Lego or making wooden ships together in the garage. Kids want to learn, and they’ll gladly suck far more information out of you as a loving and dedicated parent, than they can from a classroom setting alone – even in the best school.

Although Mrs. M. and I have only been part of the school for two months at this point, we have also signed up for a reasonable amount of in-school volunteer work. We get the chance to spend about 4 hours per week each there, and it feels great to do unpaid work to help the staff and have one-on-one time with dozens of little kids, many of them excited to see parents contributing in their classrooms. This is apparently a record year for parent volunteering at our school, possibly because the attitude of becoming more involved with school is growing in my own particular area.

Some go even further and take up homeschooling with their kids. I admire these people and I believe it can be a great choice for those with the inclination to do it. Personally, I am very happy with added random socialization added by the public school, and the added free time it provides us parents to balance our own lives back out during the school hours. (And thanks to magic of public education, there is no tuition bill!)

Just like most of the other areas of modern life, child-raising is one where the cost and the benefit are actually two unrelated things.  You can spend a lot, and get no benefit at all. Or you can spend very little, and get the greatest results. The Early Retirement Extreme guy would say that these variables are described on two entirely separate axes.

For some of us, this means we can spend less on our parenting habit, and still become better parents at the same time. For others with a surplus of money, more expensive options certainly open up – but don’t feel they are better just because they cost more – and remember the secret cost of every decision to spend more if you are not yet retired – it takes you away from your own kids.

  • Catalina February 14, 2016, 1:50 pm

    Something else I’d love to mention is the fact that you have INTERNET if he truly wants violin lessons or whatever there is literally a tutorial for everything on YouTube and google. My sister taugh herself to play the piano completely off of YouTube. In a beautiful 100 year old piano that we paid less than 50$ for.

  • Heidi January 25, 2017, 6:57 am

    Hi everyone,

    I just wanted to chime in here and give my two cents … my topic is “Paying for your child’s college.” My position is: don’t.

    I am one of five kids from a lower-middle income family (both parents worked blue collar jobs). My parents didn’t pay for any of us kids to attend college, and we all attended our local public schools growing up. Four of us completed college and all five of us are living productive, happy lives. I really think it is unrealistic for parents to believe they must pay for their children to attend college. Kids can AND DO actually figure out how to afford college … if they aren’t handed it on a silver platter. My siblings and I learned (because our parents taught us how to figure out how to do anything) how to get money for college through the many sources of college funding available – scholoarships, grants, stipends, work study, JOBS, and the last resort: loans. Yes, last resort. A young person who is barely employable has no business acquiring tens of thousands of dollars in debt. They are starting their adult life in a hole and learning that there is basically no way out. This affects their perspective on life, I’m sure.

    Alternatively, my siblings and I all held jobs while we attended college. We all worked hard and got scholarships, stipends and grants. I believe only one of us took out a loan, which was for about $5500. Because of the work ethic our parents instilled in us, the sibling with the $5500 student loan made sure to pay that loan off ASAP and not let interest build. We did not have our parents foot the bills so we could party down at the big campus, learning nothing but alcohol tolerance (or lack thereof) and that life is to be handed to you without any effort of your own.

    I think if you raise your kids to understand that college, or whatever path he/she takes after high school, is up to them to finance – then they will successfully figure it out and rise to the occasion. I think young people deserve to be taught that yes, they can figure things out and yes, they can accomplish their goals – give them their due credit. Then watch them be awesome and successful.

    Anyway, I will hop off that soap box. Just my two cents.

  • Scott April 9, 2017, 5:24 pm

    I think the best gift you can give to your child is time. MMM is right, kids don’t give a shit about bmw’s, fancy restaurants, and expensive vacations – they just want your love and attention. Being in a position where I can see my children at home every day is blessing I try not to take for granted. I understand why MMM wanted to retire early; to be there for his kid and not fall into the same trap where both parents work and pay to have someone else raise their kid. My kids go to daycare part time and when I walk in I see a room full of infants crying with a few care takers. It breaks my heart to see children at an early stage without the warmth of Mom and Dad’s hug. I understand that some people can’t afford to quit. But if we all just slow down the consumption, maybe we wouldn’t need to put our infants in daycare.

  • Rum Tum Tugger February 15, 2018, 2:17 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with this article. After eight years of parenting I have found that my kids value nothing so much as spending time with me. We have put the older one in sports (cheap ones, not the expensive and hyper-competitive leagues that some kids are in, and our goal is simply exposing him to different activities and positive adult role models besides his parents – we are not out to groom a future football star) and swimming (safety issue). But we actively try to limit the number of activities he is signed up for – many of our friends seem to spend the bulk of their time when they are not working ferrying the kids to different activities and sports leagues and basically never letting them have a chance at unstructured play.

    The other thing I have found is that kids can make a fun game out of almost anything. My two year old gets fired up about a simple red bouncy ball. It will entertain him no end, especially if I roll it back and forth with him!

  • Kali December 3, 2018, 1:27 pm

    I’m usually a lurker, but I have to make a comment about the homeschooling – when you referenced it, you used the phrase ‘random socialization’. As someone who was homeschooled, along with my siblings, we received plenty of socializing with our homeschool group, our church, local community, etc. (Also, all of us went to college, all us of did well there, and all of us are currently doing well now.) It drives me crazy that people seem to think homeschooling means to lock their children up in a basement or something.

    In response to Shelby Anderson’s comment, I currently work with several liberal, non-religious people, practically all of them educated through public schools through highschool, all of whom have difficulties imagining people that have different beliefs then they do.


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