Rational Irrationality and Irrational Rationality

(Disclaimer: This post is my stream of conscious exploration of random thoughts set off by my visit to an incredible preschool!)

It’s a cliche to say that parenting changes your life, but there is obvious truth to the cliche.  The change doesn’t happen all at once and there isn’t a value on that difference.  It’s just … different.  It’s not the fact of being a parent, but what I’ve been exposed to as a result of being a parent that has shifted what I think and what I believe, and that’s probably true of all major life experiences.

I am normally a very practical and analytical person, but I recently had a transformative experience that highlighted for me how even the most sensible person can get caught up (and I mean CAUGHT UP) in irrationality.  I toured a preschool that I had purposely avoided visiting because we can’t afford it.  (Just to give you a picture of how clearly we can’t afford it, the annual tuition is more than my take-home pay!)  Not only is the school really expensive, but they only have 173 instructional days/year!  The school runs on an academic year, so you have to pay extra for a summer session and even with that, there are about 3 weeks of vacation and 3 other weeks when the school is closed before/after summer session.  You’d think these factors would be enough for me to rule out the school since I know you are supposed to stay away from things you can’t afford and only crazy people tempt fate like this.  In my mind, though, I knew that I wasn’t going to want to send my kids there, so what was the harm in checking it out?  I ended up touring the school because I have FOMA and because two of our friends with similar aged children sang its praises.  I ended up falling madly, deeply in love with the school.  Crap – I had not planned on that happening!

The school is naturally beautiful and kid-centered.  During the tour, I was holding back tears because I felt a deep emotional connection to the school, like it was my soulmate preschool.  (Yes, I realize this sounds totally nuts, especially since typically during preschool tours, I am asking very practical questions to fill out my spreadsheet.)  Everything at this school is intentional, though unforced, and decisions are backed by research and experience, and 100% aligned with my beliefs about children’s development and nurturing individuals.  When the director answered other people’s questions about the school, his responses were the same as mine would have been if someone asked me to describe my ideal preschool.  As a former teacher, it’s the type of environment that would have kept me in the teaching profession.

After I toured, I immediately called my partner and started crying while telling him that I had found the perfect preschool even though I knew we couldn’t afford it.  I was conveniently shoving that pesky detail into the back of my head while I told him about my amazing experience.  Later that night, we talked about the cost and practicalities and even though I already knew it, when he said, “Babe, that school is for rich people”, I felt the little kid in me that had been jumping up and down all day resign herself (well, almost resign) to this fact.  My rational self knows this school is, in fact, for rich people, and after doing more research, it’s probably not the right school for us because we are not “rich people.”  Don’t get me wrong, we are very fortunate and comfortable, but we are not at the level of comfort that the families whose kids go to this school must be at.  The school’s family handbook states that one familial obligation is “To participate in the Annual Fund at a level that is meaningful for their financial situation, and other fundraising events as desired.”  That means that even if we can scrape together tuition, we’d have to scrape together some more to “give” every year.  Families also sponsor social events that double as fundraisers for the school.  There’s a slumber party that costs $50 per kid to attend!  If we sent our kids there, would I feel guilty if I asked a kid to sleep over our house, but didn’t use it to raise money for the school?   I want to be friends with other parents at the school I send my kids to and we will be in an entirely different financial situation than most, if not all, of the other families at this school, which will inevitably lead to awkward encounters (We flew to the galapagos island on my family’s jet and swam with turtles, what did you do for spring break?  Uh, we went to the playground a few times.)

Even though I know that our family probably doesn’t fit into the school’s culture outside of the actual day to day instruction/activity, the school is so amazing, that I still wish I could send my kids there.  I know it’s irrational, but it’s what I am feeling.

So, is it ever rational to be irrational?  Is it ever irrational to be rational?

A rational person at this point would say, there is no way we can send our kids to this school and we shouldn’t want to because we will have a lot of awkward social interactions and not feel like we are giving enough to the school monetarily (crazy!).  But, is it rational to be irrational in order to give our kids this opportunity?  My rational self is desperately trying to convince me that we don’t live in a socialist country, so I don’t get to send my kids to this excellent school just because I want to.  The practicalities will eventually force our hand, but the fact that I can’t 100% let go of the idea of sending our kids to this school has been interesting as an exercise in self-reflection.

For me, becoming a parent has been the most major event in my life thus far and clearly it tempts me to rationalize making highly irrational choices to give my kids what I think is the best.  I work with many young people who have experienced, unfortunately, major traumatic events in their lives and, especially at this young age, that truly shapes the way they view the world.  So, when we service providers get exasperated about why a young person doesn’t do xyz that we know will help them, or stop engaging in harmful behaviors, we need to remind ourselves that our perspective on what is good for them or rational might not actually be rational for them based on their experiences.  This is both extremely obvious and much easier said than done.

Then there’s this – I have almost come to terms with the fact that my kids can’t go to this school, but there is something incredibly powerful and reassuring that this school exists because maybe one day, this school won’t just be for rich people, and it will also be for my other kids, the ones I work for.  I have worked with young people from vulnerable backgrounds for my entire career and I believe strongly in the power of public school reform as a path to providing equal opportunities to all children.  I still believe that, but after the preschool tour, I became acutely aware of the powerful role that private schools can play in this larger mission of providing experiences so that all children have the opportunity to be successful.

To be clear, this school probably doesn’t have any students like the kids I work for, but the director is planning a capital campaign for the sole purpose of establishing an endowment for scholarships and sliding scale tuition.  Who knows if this will pan out – maybe the parent community will rebel and be uncomfortable with the school if its mission shifts to be more inclusive of who can access this amazing education, but the fact that this is what the director of this school is thinking and planning for is moving to me.

In California, public school funding isn’t based on property tax like it is in many other states, so ostensibly wealthier neighborhoods don’t have better funded schools and there’s equity between schools.  In reality, this isn’t the case, in part because there are foundations or big fundraisers that provide additional support to schools in many of the wealthier school districts that pay for things the school needs/wants that federal and state funding won’t cover.  In those schools and private schools, less well-off students benefit from this because families who can afford to pay more do through tuition and donations, and there are positive externalities for everyone.

This is fine, but I think the idea can be much more expansive because I think all families want to contribute to their kids’ education and there should be ways to do that besides money.  A private school is a business, but its purpose isn’t to maximize profits, it’s ostensibly to maximize the experience of its students.  What if schools offered a range of ways for families to “pay” tuition to improve diversity in a way that improves students’ experience?  This is essentially the rationale behind co-op preschools, where tuition is low and parents work to help offset the costs of running the school, but co-ops usually require parents to work during the school day, so it’s infeasible for parents who work full time.  There are some co-op preschools that give families the option of paying more instead of working, but couldn’t there be another option too?  There are lots of ways in which I could contribute to a school community other than working during the day.  In my ideal situation, the awesome preschool I visited would have kids from “rich” families, families like mine who could “work” in exchange for tuition assistance, and major financial aid for families who are already working multiple jobs and wouldn’t have nights/weekends to work on school-related projects.

I still believe what I said in this post entitled “It Mostly Doesn’t Make a Difference”, but I also believe that there are lots of times when being a parent and wanting the best for your kids no matter what will challenge my inherent tendency to be rational and analytical.

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