Sarah Jaffe and "Wanting What’s Best"
An interview with attorney and author Sarah Jaffe about what to ask instead of "is this a 'good' school," and why it might be OK if your kid eats nothing but string cheese for an entire week.
Sarah Jaffe is the author of “Wanting What’s Best: Parenting, Privilege and Building A Just World.” Note: The podcast part of this newsletter is still forthcoming, due to technical issues! Look for it in your in-box later this week.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your book:
Think of the Children is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I’m Sarah Jaffe, I live in Brooklyn with my 4-year-old and husband. I was an attorney for kids in foster care through 2020, and that was my job for about 7 years, but I was always kind of dabbling in freelance writing as well. The book tries to look at childhood inequality in the U.S. through a lens of individual parents who are trying to address that parenting inequality through their parenting decisions.
Tell me something that surprised you or something that you learned or discovered from working on this book:
Something I knew, but hadn’t really fully grappled with, is the extent of segregation in our current school system. In law school, you study Brown vs. Board of Education, and you learn that segregated schools ended in 1954, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. One of the great gifts of writing this book was getting to talk to people from Integrated Schools — it’s a grassroots organization of parents who are seeing the realities of segregation for what it is and talking about it. It’s particularly aimed at white parents who don’t want to perpetuate that issue that’s still alive and well.
Tell me about something you learned that made you think, I might do something differently as a parent?
Before I was writing this book, I was pretty caught up in what everyone else around me was doing. You know, I’m in the Brooklyn listservs, and I was a little bit dubious about some of it, but I felt like I didn’t really know what else to look for sources of information about things like, how do you set up a child care arrangement and what’s a good school. So getting the chance to talk to actual people with expertise about how to thoughtfully approach these issues was just a huge load off my shoulders. I maybe knew deep down that I didn’t want to be part of this parenting rat race, but I didn’t have a lot of alternatives. This feels like it gave me alternatives, sort of, for several major parenting decisions. We just went through kindergarten admissions and through the work of Integrated Schools, I feel very excited about sending her to this school that might have been more of an ‘Oh, I don’t know if we’ll fit in there.’ She’ll be in the demographic minority, and that's fine. That’s actually not something that I need to automatically assume won’t be a good fit.
What is important when we look at a school?
I think some of it is just putting a little less intense weight on the idea that where you go to elementary schools makes or breaks you for life. A lot of the most hyper-intense parenting is coming from college-educated relatively affluent parents, where all the data suggests that it gives your kid a very significant head start in the world. It’s not that schools don’t matter; it’s just not that we’re going to make or break them. I have a friend who was like, “I’m just really worried that he won’t learn about kindness if he doesn’t go to this kindergarten.” That’s not really how learning or child development works.
So the question really that is maybe more appropriate to ask is, Who is this a good school for? It was interesting for me to interview Black and Latino parents who were saying things like — one mom said, the shiniest school, literally and figuratively, could be a place where her kids would be the most marginalized. So it’s a “good school,” but not for her kids or not for her family. And then I talked to parents with kids in the foster care system who struggle with trauma issues who also went to a “good school” that couldn’t handle their kid at all. So we need to look critically at who schools are serving and give schools credit who are serving populations of kids who maybe don’t get the highest test scores.
Right, but I think in the absence of these more nuanced conversations, we fall back on things like test scores, because that’s still the kind of information we’re presented with about a school.
Or in some cases, it’s, Does the school have an organic garden? Does it have a Montessori curriculum? For some privileged parents, those kinds of things have kind of taken the place of test scores, but it’s all still kind of a proxy for a certain kind of privilege. It doesn’t really get away from it, fundamentally. But talking to parents who have sent their kids to the low-scoring schools — one of them said, “What she’s gotten from this school, she could never have gotten anywhere else.”
When it comes to that feeling of being caught up in this parenting rat race, I wonder if you have any thoughts about what’s driving it. Where does that pressure come from?
The New York Times did some good journalism around that question after the Varsity Blues scandal came out, and “snowplow parenting” became a term. I talk about that in my book (I didn’t do a lot of original research on that), but some of it is definitely economic inequality. It’s gotten more and more stratified, and this sense that if you’re not one of very few winners, then you’re on the other side of the divide and a paycheck away from living on the streets. It’s not entirely inaccurate. It definitely is the way a lot of the country lives. So rising inequality kind of feeds into people’s perceptions.
Dan Ariely — he was in the Elizabeth Holmes documentary talking about honestly and lying — he has written about how the very state of being a parent kind of confuses our moral compass, because we get the message that a good parent sacrifices everything for their children, but we don’t really have a way of distinguishing, not to stomp on other people to get there. So I think that’s really interesting. I feel like the language used by parents fleeing war-torn countries is kind of used by parents who are not in that position at all to justify why they needed to get their kid into a certain school.
We’ve talked about the kind of individual solutions to these pressures, but I wonder if you have any thoughts about systemic changes as well.
The fear is that we don’t have any social safety net; that parents do, kind of correctly, feel that they’re just marooned out there and they’re the only safety net their kid has in the world and they need to arm them. So absolutely, it is a systemic problem at the root of this that individuals are responding to — maybe not in an ideal way — but it’s also at its core about a lack of social safety net and a lack of investment in child care, schools, and higher education in this country.
In addition to interviews with individual parents, the book includes interviews with the parents in Portland, OR, who got a ballot initiative passed to get universal child care for 3- and 4-year-olds. It wasn’t that it wasn’t a ton of work, but they did it. And I found those stories very uplifting and hopeful that there are local changes.
Parents kind of correctly feel that they’re just marooned out there and they’re the only safety net their kid has in the world.
It was devastating that we were so close to having national child care and we didn’t. I was writing the chapter while it was going back and forth and it was like, Joe Manchin, you’re killing me! It shouldn't be out of the goodness of people’s heart that they pay their nanny a living wage.
And the schools question absolutely ties into this. The discrepancies in PTA funding — it’s just huge, in terms of what schools can offer. And in a really just world, it wouldn’t be like that. I interviewed two moms in Evanston who got all the schools in their district to go to a one-fund model and it’s distributed based on need. The schools that serve a more in-need population get more money instead of the sact opposite.
I love that, because I feel like solutions like that kind of bridge the gap between the personal and the systemic. Because, you know, it can’t just be about parents’ individual choices — the world would never change that way.
I definitely didn’t want to write a book that beat up on individual parents. There are enough of those; forget it. I hope that reading this book would take a load off. Make you feel more at peace, more like you have guidance for how to make good decisions.
What’s something that you do differently as a parent, compared to your family of origin?
Something I really like about modern parenting culture is that there’s a greater recognition that kids are people, that they’re their own people, they’re not just appendages or things to be controlled. And if I didn’t already feel that way, I think my daughter absolutely would have made that very clear. She has had the strongest agendas from really almost Day 1. And just cannot be swayed from them at all. As much as is reasonable and as much as enables me to still feel like a person, I let her call a lot of shots about what she wants to do. And it’s not that my parents never did that or anything, but there was more of a culture that, parents say things and kids do them. It definitely is a question for me about where’s the right line. It’s constantly negotiating. It’s hard to get it right, but I do like a lot of what the modern parenting people have to say about having empathy for your kids. Think about if you were told where to go every second of your day, and how grumpy you would be.
What’s something that’s hard for you as a parent right now?
My daughter is a very picky eater. Very picky. I was not like that as a kid. I ate everything. And that is hard for me. I have good days and bad days with it, and some days it just drives me to distraction. I've found a lot of help and support through a Facebook group for parents whose kids have an eating disorder that my daughter hasn’t been diagnosed withm but a lot of it resonates for me. I’ve just had to be like, She just doesn’t like it. I wouldn’t want to be forced to eat food I wouldn’t like. She’s not doing it at me. It’s not a manipulative thing. I really don’t think that it is.
I struggle with this too, and for me, it’s hard because it feels like an emergency when my child won’t eat. It feels like a crisis. And when I feel that way, it’s really hard to make good decisions.
Right, because you have all the information about what the rest of the day looks like, and how in half an hour we really can’t be sitting back down to eat again. It does feel like an emergency because it depends on the rest of the day’s schedule. And “she’ll eat when she’s hungry” is not completely true for her and is not completely true for lots of kids. I do have to be on top of it in a way, because she’ll just sort of fall apart and get sort of hangry and so dysregulated she can’t eat. But she doesn't have to eat as much as I think she’s supposed to eat.
Tell me something that you love about parenting right now, at this stage in your daughter’s life:
Our daughter is very, very into pretend play right now, to the extent that she never wants to be called by her actual name and she has different obsessions at different times of what he wants to be called. Right now it’s presidents, so this morning she wanted to be Barack, last night she was Jimmy Carter. All of that is just very funny. We have things to laugh about every night after she goes to bed. She takes herself so seriously but is unintentionally so funny.
Is there anything you swore you’d never do as a parent that you absolutely have done?
The food thing for sure. I was like, We’re going to do baby-led weaning and then it’s just a smooth sail into a diverse and wonderful palate. And she did eat everything — until she didn’t. Which also is common, but they don’t tell you that! When she was 8 months old and grabbing chow mein on my plate, I was like, I’ve got this figured out. So that was a huge slice of humble pie for sure.
And screens — I definitely didn’t want to do many screens and I have mostly stuck to that. She’s seen two movies now in her life, and I just had this image that if she saw a screen, she was going to be a slack-jawed zombie and never going to want to do anything else. But even when the movies were on, she was running around the room and asking me a million questions about them. I think I had catastrophized that a lot — that kids automatically become totally horribly behaved, demanding screens all the time.
It’s understandable, because at least when my daughter was small, the conversation about screens was very unequivocal and very strongly worded. It was, Screens are bad, and that’s an end of it. It was almost like that 1980s anti-drug campaign, you know, this is your brain on screens. So in the absence of more nuanced conversations about screen time, we fall back on that idea of absolutely no screens, or else.
But just imagine if you truly followed every recommendation for parents. You know, it’s like, you’re supposed to brush their teeth three times a day, and they’re supposed to get 60 minutes of exercise every day, and all of these things. It would be like, Oh my god.
Right, and we don’t always talk about the other side of that equation, which is, What happens if I don’t? And in the absence of that information, if we don’t talk about, Here’s what to expect if your child isn’t getting 60 minutes of exercise every day, it’s really easy for me to assume the worst.
A helpful thing about having represented kids in foster care is that you have that bar for what kids actually need. And a lot of it is just to go home to the same people every day and have people who care about them and try to meet their needs. And that’s most of it, really! Seeing a lot of kids who didn’t have that — the “good enough” parent is actually what kids need. When you don’t have that perspective, it leads you to catastrophize those situations. Having risk perception and all these things came into play a lot during the pandemic.
When you’re working, where is your daughter?
New York has universal preK, so from 8 a.m. to 2:20 p.m., she is in taxpayer-funded preK. But that’s just since she was 4. She’s with my husband a lot, and I do a lot after he’s done with work and on the weekends. I do the early morning thing sometimes, definitely not every morning, but the occasional 5 a.m. morning can hold it all together OK. And I don’t work full-time. I think it’s just very, very challenging to have two full-time working parents. I’d read about this for years, but it is very striking how little the hours of child care add up to. And summer — summer is just a wasteland, and the costs of that is certainly another thing I did not really understand going into parenting.
Sarah’s book is out May 24, but you can preorder a copy now wherever books are sold, and you can find Sarah on Twitter at @SarahWinifred. Are you a person who writes about parenting and education? Get in touch if you’d like to be in a future newsletter!
Think of the Children is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.