The Gourmet Children

updated 11/26/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/26/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

They're called "gourmet children." Their parents are usually in their 30s, affluent and mesmerized by that vague Valhalla called "The Top." With fierce determination they feel that nothing is too good for their young, and the ordinary not nearly good enough. When the kids are small, every gurgle gets lavish attention, and when they have lurched on to 3 or 4, it is time to face a challenge that—as these parents see it—can decide their entire future: kindergarten.

Strange as that surely seems to anyone who still thinks of kindergarten as a place of crayons and sandboxes, many parents today regard acceptance by a prestigious private kindergarten (where tuition averages $3,800 a year) as the first step onto a magic escalator that will carry their moppets to the best colleges and grad schools. To groom their tots for the test, parents across the U.S. work tirelessly. Janice Bails, admissions director at the Latin School of Chicago (tuition: $3,140), educator of the Windy City's blueblood children for 96 years, received a letter from the parents of a 3-year-old girl who had applied for the next year's kindergarten class. The parents attached a four-page résumé that listed the child's accomplishments, from word games to hanging on chin-up bars, and detailed 11 programs she attended during the "structured part of her day"—tennis, gymnastics and French lessons among others. In addition, boasted the parents, she had picked up Spanish from her babysitter, plus Mandarin and German from other members of the household staff. The child was rejected because the admissions committee felt she simply didn't know how to play.

Stories of hysterical phone calls and fur coat bribes to private school administrators abound nowadays as parents jockey to position their children. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, enrollments at such kindergartens have jumped by 20 percent during the last five years, and that pales in comparison to the increase in applications. Parents today are willing to pay astronomical tuitions for their children to crayon and count Cuisenaire rods in small classes and idyllic settings. Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Cambridge, Mass. charges $3,300 to teach its 5-year-olds. Brook-side School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich, asks $4,700 for the half-day "senior" kindergarten, and Trinity School's kindergarten in Manhattan tops them with an all-inclusive tuition of $6,240.

"Parents now view education as a predetermination in the future of their children," laments Anne-Marie Pierce, director of the Ecole Bilingue, a school in Berkeley where kindergarten costs $3,200. "There's the same anxiety now in enrolling preschoolers as parents had when they applied to college."

In New York City, where the competition for private schools has reached frantic levels ("second only to finding an apartment," says Gardner Dunnan, headmaster of the Dalton School), parents are even placing their 2½-year-olds in "readiness" programs at "feeder" nursery schools to prepare them for kindergarten. "My child had workbooks and phonics in her nursery school," says one New York mother. "By the time she got to kindergarten, it was practically a reprieve." And last June parents who live in the high-rent ZIP codes of Manhattan received a letter from Star Associates, a company that offers a 20-session special course to prep 4-and 5-year-olds for kindergarten aptitude interviews and tests—tests that measure auditory and visual memory, left-right directionality and ability to listen and cooperate. "There's too much at stake not to have a child perform to the best of his ability," says Maxine Levy, who started the company. Making a staggering but nowadays common leap, she adds, "If you have a job applicant from Harvard and one from City College, which one are you going to hire?"

The frenzied competition in 5-year-old circles is in part due to numbers: During the late 1970s the 70 million achievement-oriented members of the baby-boom generation—many of them couples who postponed having children until their two careers were on track—produced the toddlers who are now reaching school age. "The majority of parents interested in enrolling their kids in private kindergarten are college educated, career oriented and eager to provide an educational experience for their children that would be likely to lead to a successful and productive life," explains David Fleishhacker, headmaster of the Katherine Delmar Burke School in San Francisco (kindergarten tuition: $2,900). But that concern can easily turn to near phobia. Recently a woman called one of the tonier private schools in Chicago requesting a kindergarten application. When asked her child's age, she replied, "Oh, I don't have any kids yet. But I'm thinking of getting pregnant." Says Edward Zigler, director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University: "As parents get older and have fewer children each one becomes a precious object. Almost too much—or the wrong kind—of energy is expended on the child."

Even parents who cannot easily afford the towering tuitions are increasingly turning to private schools, partly because of a spate of ominous studies published recently. In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued a report warning of a "rising tide of mediocrity" in the country's schools. "I believe in public education, but in our neighborhood in New York I just didn't feel we had a choice," says one mother. Her daughter made the cut at Dalton, which admitted only 150 of more than 2,000 applicants last year and charges $5,700 for kindergarten. More recently the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich. confirmed the educational value of something affluent parents have been able to afford all along: a good early start. Half of a group of underprivileged children were given high quality preschool education; 15 years later those children performed better on key indicators—high school graduation, further education and jobs—than the half who had received standard schooling. Says Headmaster Raymond R. Michaud Jr., of L.A.'s John Thomas Dye School (tuition: $3,200), "Education has always been important to the professionals, the doctors and lawyers. Now it's a rallying point for the nation."

Some experts, like Dr. James Comer, director of the Child Study Center at Yale University, think the concern over public education is overblown. "Middle-income parents are looking at a narrowing tunnel of high-level job opportunities for their children as the competition gets stiffer," he concedes. "But there are lots of good public schools. This country educates more people than anyplace in the world. Yet there's a pervasive attitude that we have a horrendous problem."

Whatever the widely varying quality of public education, a visit to private kindergartens these days turns up more computer terminals and fewer sandboxes. Friedrich Froebel, a German educator who invented kindergarten in 1837, called it a "children's garden" because he prized play as the highest childhood activity. So much for the influence of pioneers: At Westminster Schools in Atlanta (tuition: $2,785), today's "Pre-First" students learn economics and compose stories on Apple II computers. That is no extreme example. The admissions brochure from the Katherine Delmar Burke School in San Francisco advises prospective parents that kindergarten curriculum includes social studies, science, art, music, dance, "hands-on" training with computers, geometry "and some beginning physics." To the parents of these budding Einsteins, the pamphlet sternly but needlessly adds, "We are not a school for children with serious learning disabilities."

An additional and largely unspoken reason why some parents are feverish in their pursuit of the "right" schools is that many public kindergartens, especially in cities, are full of the "wrong" children (translation: kids from poor families). Many private school headmasters maintain convincingly that they care about educating their charges, not about how spiffy their backgrounds are. But the officials concede privately that not all the pupils' parents share their view.

With the competition for elite kindergartens likely to get stronger in the next decade, many educators are also concerned about the implications of the selection process itself. "Parents should be concerned about 3-year-olds enjoying themselves, not about getting into Harvard," says Joan Lutton, principal of the Cushman School (tuition: $1,350) in Miami. "We shouldn't lay these things on children when they're little. Then they become unhappy people." Psychologist Zigler agrees that many high-pressure kindergarten curricula are reflections of exaggerated and often harmful parental expectations. "I pay for my young son to take clarinet lessons now," he says pointedly. "But I don't do it thinking that he's going to play in Carnegie Hall as a direct result." Zigler's moral: For too many parents and their kids today the fundamental pleasures and rewards of learning are getting lost in the competitive shuffle.

Written by SUSAN REED from bureau reports

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