I Taught Rich People’s Kids for Years. Here’s What I Learned.
His mom said he had an extraordinary IQ. “It’s probably in the 140s,” she went on. “I don’t know why he’s struggling.”
“Well,” I said. “It’s an advanced class.”
“Yeah, but he’s a genius.”
Welcome to the talent identification program, or the center for talented youth, or the school for gifted youngsters, or whatever you want to call it. This happened every summer. Parents routinely overestimated their children’s intellect. Everyone’s a genius here, but obviously their kid is a little more gifted than everyone else’s.
Of course, obviously…
These parents signed their kids up for the hardest classes they could find. They pulled strings to get prerequisites waived. When their kids flailed, they blamed everyone but themselves.
They threw rich people tantrums.
Sometimes we could soothe their egos by reminding them, it’s supposed to be hard. Sometimes it worked. Other times, it made them angrier. Once, a dad threatened to sue me when his 14-year-old daughter failed a test in Calculus II. “My wife and I have donated generously to this institution for years,” he said. “You’ll be sorry.”
I worked for these programs for a long time. I started out as an RA, then I worked as a TA, an instructor, and then a dean.
I know them pretty well.
The entire point of these programs is to challenge kids who don’t feel like they’re learning enough at their normal schools. Unfortunately, it often becomes less about education and more about egos. It’s yet another opportunity for parents to proclaim their status. They often don’t even let their kids pick the course.
A lot of the parents understand these programs for what they are, a chance to learn more. Many of them don’t.
They take it way too far.
The kids are pushed to achieve far beyond their limits. Some of them have emotional breakdowns their first week. They’ll come into their RA’s room sobbing in the middle of the night.
They’ll have panic attacks.
Some of them are terrified of disappointing their parents. Building them back up, that’s part of our training.
The parents want these programs to give them an extra advantage on their college applications. They’re maxing out their privilege, hoping it helps them get into Stanford or Princeton, or even just Cornell.
Orientations could get awkward.
Some of these parents show up to campus thinking their kids will be taking real college classes with professors from Harvard and Yale. You can see the disappointment on their brows when they learn the courses are usually taught by graduate students.
I’ve had meetings with parents who thought I taught at an Ivy League university during the school year. When I explained to them I didn’t, things got awkward. Some of them got pretty rude.
I thought some of them were going to attack me.
I wish I were kidding.
One of my friends who taught introduction to cinema liked to play a cruel joke on these parents. “When they ask where I teach, I tell them I actually work at Old Navy. That really gets them.”
A lot of the parents are your standard affluent liberal. They act polite. They talk about diversity. They want their kids to read challenging material. They want them to understand current events.
They won’t let them near The New York Times.
“It’s too liberal.”
At the end of each session, we’re supposed to have meetings with the parents where we praise their child. Instead of a grade, we write a little letter for them. It has to be detailed. It can’t be too long. Otherwise, parents won’t read it. We have to identify areas for improvement. We have to find something they struggled with a little, but not too much. Otherwise, their parents will yell at them.
The parents often ask for advice about what their kids can do to keep developing their intellect. They almost always have their own ideas. They just want me to validate them.
After six weeks, I was usually too tired to hold a civil debate with them. Plus, I had another set of parents waiting.
So I’d just nod and smile.
It was quicker.
Some of these parents honestly think their children are going to cure cancer or start Fortune 500 Companies. Many of them will, of course, go on to lead very rewarding careers, but curing cancer? It’s a big ask. That’s what the parents seem to want. They’re scared their kids aren’t going to get into a top school. For a long time, I thought they were just being paranoid and elitist. As it turns out, they’re actually kind of right.
I’ve been denied jobs because I didn’t have the right pedigree. I’ve seen doors open for people with fancy degrees.
I’ve seen the same doors slammed in my face.
I almost didn’t get tenure. One of my vice chancellors didn’t think my school was a real university. I had to get extra review letters from top scholars in the field to vouch for me.
It was a little insulting.
These academic summer programs provide a little window into America’s obsession with prestige. Honestly, it’s unsettling. For a country that prides itself so much on its democracy and its social mobility, there’s an awful lot of rich parents who are terrified for their children’s future if they don’t get into the absolute best universities.
They believe their child has to be a super genius.
Otherwise, there’s no point.
These children are supposed to be learning how to struggle and fail. And yet, their parents often accept neither. On the one hand, they want their kids to be challenged intellectually and academically. On the other, they don’t ever want that struggle to feel too real.
Struggle scares them.
These parents often gasp when they find out:
I was a gifted kid in a gifted program.
Then I grew up.
Parents can’t fathom why someone with a high IQ or a 4.0 GPA would go to an average state university. They don’t know why someone with my kind of potential would squander it by choosing to work in public education for a substandard salary. I’ve watched smug, elitist faces turn crimson as they reckon with the fact that being smart or even “gifted” isn’t enough to guarantee a life free from financial stress.
Some of them didn’t find out I was gifted until after they’d spent hours going on about their own child’s brilliance and treating me like a glorified babysitter. It never occurred to them that someone could excel in school and then opt for an ordinary life.
It rattled them a little.
Some of them leave with this stunned expression, as if they never thought their kid would ever encounter equals who didn’t brag about their IQ five minutes into a conversation. It’s ironic, because that’s what they signed up for. They presumably want their little geniuses to interact with other little geniuses, but they’re never prepared for it.
Therein lies the problem.
These parents want their children to change the world, but they also want them to maintain a sense of privilege and superiority. They can’t imagine a future where they aren’t showered with praise or guaranteed access to the absolute best of everything.
I have an idea:
If we really want to prepare bright young minds for the future, we need to stop equating intelligence with wealth and prestige. It’s one of the main reasons why America has fallen so far behind other countries when it comes to… pretty much everything.
I have my own daughter now.
I’m not worried about whether she’s gifted.
Even if I could afford it, I’m not sure I would send her to the kind of summer programs I worked for.
I don’t want her to spend her youth stressing out and losing sleep over test scores and college applications. I don’t want her to feel like she even has to go to college. I don’t want her to think too much about the numbers assigned to her intelligence or creativity.
I want her to live.
Teaching rich kids taught me one thing: You can buy test scores. You can buy degrees. You can buy prestige.
You can’t buy intelligence.
You have to earn it.