A few years ago, David Brooks wrote a column in which he took a friend without a high school degree to a sandwich shop. "Suddenly," he recounted, "I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named 'Padrino' and 'Pomodoro' and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican."
Brooks concluded that "American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, 'You are not welcome here.'" Well, this is hardly a new phenomenon in America or otherwise, but it's also only a superficial explanation of what separates the upper-middle class from everyone else. There are also real habits and real pieces of knowledge that enable some kids to get ahead. And they matter a lot more than whether you know different words for Italian meat.
And if you want to know what those are, you could do a lot worse than reading Eva Moskowitz's new book, A+ Parenting: The Surprisingly Fun Guide to Raising Surprisingly Smart Kids. Moskowitz, whose Success Academy charter school network currently educates more than 20,000 kids in New York City, says she is often asked for parenting advice.
Moskowitz has three young adult children of her own, and she (and her husband, with whom she wrote the book) sees it as the responsibility both of parents and educators to teach children "how to learn." This is a phrase that's thrown around a lot lately; usually it's mentioned in contrast to teaching children "what to learn." But for Moskowitz, the former is not possible without the latter. And so the book has a lot of suggestions for what books kids should read, what movies they should watch, what games they should play, and what extracurricular activities they should participate in.
The idea behind these suggestions is to give children the "intellectual habits … to become good students and thinkers." Moskowitz offers some examples: "They must learn … to be patient, inquisitive, and inventive; to review their work critically, overcome their fears and exercise discipline; and perhaps most important, to enjoy and value learning—in other words, to become enthusiastic learners."
To some parents this sounds like the purview of school, but as Moskowitz notes repeatedly, parents spend a lot more time with their children than teachers do. As such, they can engage in a lot of activities that teachers don't have the time to do. She recommends giving your kids logic puzzles that they can mull over for days or weeks. Teachers teach kids the steps to solving a problem because they are under time pressure to get through a curriculum. But "in real life, you sometimes get thrown into the deep end of the pool. When your boss needs you to solve a problem, they won't teach you exactly how to solve it because they may not know themselves."
Even if parents don't have the kind of time they think they need in order to develop these habits in their kids, Moskowitz assures readers that she is not asking for martyrdom. She has and has had some pretty demanding jobs, and her husband works full-time too. "Some parents think they owe it to their children to clean up after them, to entertain them every moment they get bored, and to let them whine and complain whenever they're unhappy." On the contrary. "This may lead your children to think that the whole world revolves around them, and that their needs should take precedence over everyone else's, including yours, which isn't a good way to start life." Amen.
One way to make clear this point is by having your child spend time around adults. They will hear more advanced vocabulary and learn interesting things that they may not if they just spend time around kids their own age. But Moskowitz also has a lot of suggestions for family time. She is a big fan of board games and card games, but she is very specific. Even for younger kids she prefers games that involve strategy to those that are just luck. Connect Four is better than Candy Land. But anyone who knows Success Academies knows that Moskowitz's real passion lies with chess. The school starts kids in kindergarten and its students have gone on to become top players. Chess rewards kids for patience. And this, says Moskowitz, is one of the keys to her students doing well in school and particularly on standardized tests, where it is always tempting to pick the first answer you come to.
Family activities should include a lot of talking and playing together and listening to music. Moskowitz even has strong opinions on children's songs. She is a fan of show tunes and Tom Lehrer. Because kids listen to them over and over, they can learn new vocabulary, and even if they don't get all the jokes at first, they can understand more as they go. It is funny, looking back, how many of the smart people I knew in college were familiar with these same off-the-beaten-track voices. This could seem like it falls into the "soppresatta" category, but Moskowitz makes the case that such music helps children learn vocabulary and develop a more sophisticated sense of humor.
A child of the '60s, Moskowitz also recommends Bob Dylan. She imagines a child thinking about Dylan's lyric: "How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?" "The first reaction might be one of bemusement. The idea that a person may have more than two ears, or that this would allow them to hear better, may intrigue a child. This leads the child to think each time they listen to the song and to realize that Dylan isn't being literal. Rather he is pointing out how absurd it is that we should be unable to hear the evidence of war's harm with the two ears we already have."
Perhaps the area where parents need to take the strongest stance is against screens "because excessive television and video games will make it very difficult for your child to engage in more educational activities." But even when it comes to technology, Moskowitz is not a pure Luddite and has some useful recommendations. She is a big fan of audiobooks, particularly for kids who have trouble reading. Using them is a way to develop vocabulary even for kids who have dyslexia, for instance. And she likes smart speakers. Not worried about the Chinese spying on us, she says she regularly uses the speakers to help answer questions her kids ask. Her family enjoys classic movies, and she likes showing young kids nature documentaries, though even those she is particular about and has recommendations for ones that include more interesting language.
Moskowitz is definitely not of the school—which has gained much currency in education recently—that as long as a child is reading, it doesn't really matter whether it's Black Beauty or the Wimpy Kid series. She advises that reading "mediocre" books is "a waste of time." A+ Parenting is an engaging combination of educational advice, what your child should know with some more abstract thoughts about character too and how the content we feed our kids has an enormous impact on that character.
"Watching fictional films," she writes, "can be quite educational if the films themselves are good. Unfortunately, many are rather predictable. They return to the same old themes: that people who are good and hardworking win out in the end; that you should marry for love and follow your instincts; that people will succeed when they learn how to work together; that all people can be divided into bad people (terrorists, Nazis, racists, big corporations) and good people (underdogs, environmentalists)."
Moskowitz instead recommends Amadeus or Steve Jobs or In the Heat of the Night because "the appeal of more complicated films like these is that they lead you to think about the film after it is done." For parents—especially immigrants or those in the working class—who are trying to give their kids more opportunities, A+ Parenting is invaluable. Not only does it offer real lists of the things kids should know—an E.D. Hirsch approach to childrearing—but it also explains how those things will enable parents to engage more with their children. Frankly, though, too many upper-middle-class parents have gotten away from offering their kids this kind of rich content. And if the schools are not going to do it, the buck has to stop somewhere.
A+ Parenting: The Surprisingly Fun Guide to Raising Surprisingly Smart Kids
by Eva Moskowitz with Eric Grannis
Harvest, 265 pp., $28.99
Naomi Schaefer Riley, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Independent Women's Forum, is the author of No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.