I was having breakfast with a lawyer a few weeks ago. He’s older than me; his kids are out of law school and starting their careers.
As a side note: I think I’ll have been kind of a failure as a parent if my kids become lawyers. I like the John Adams idea that I study law so that my kids can study art or philosophy. Or, if not art, something that they choose. Seeing someone follow in their parents’ footsteps, if they haven’t tried something else, makes me depressed. Is progress not the goal? Must we all be sheep? Well-shorn sheep, to be sure, but no more in charge of our own path in life. Though, of course, I also strive to be less judgmental. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Etc.
Anyway, I asked my breakfast companion for parenting advice, since he seemed like the kind of person who would like to be asked for advice.
His advice: don’t send your kids to private school.
He told me that he’d figured it out and that he had spent more than a million dollars on private school for his kids, not counting college and law school. A million dollars. Making a few assumptions about when his kids started going to private school, their ages, and using a six percent rate of return, I figure that would be worth about $2.5 million today.
Worse, he thought the public schools where we live are actually pretty good.
I asked him why he did it, if it was so expensive and provided no marginal benefit. He said it was “because it seemed like what he was supposed to do.”
It’s true that when folks at fancy lawyer events ask me where my kids go to school I feel them looking down on me when I say they go to public school. Clearly, many lawyers have swallowed the idea that a marker of success is sending your kids to a fancy private school. And it is – the same way driving a fancy car or living in a really big house are markers of success.
But all of that should be obvious enough.
The Biggest Reason Not to Send Your Kids to Private School
You will be paying more money to make them worse people.
We all want lots of things for our children. Some of them may be incommensurate. We want them to be loved, and to love. We want them to be happy. We want them to be good people. And we want them to be successful.
In the same way lawyers compete over the number of lawyers at their firm, or what private school their kids go to, or where they live, lawyers compete over what their kids are doing. The lawyer with a kid who is at Harvard Law School is winning the cocktail party against a lawyer with a kid who is a teacher. Despite that teachers have some of the lowest suicide rates among professions and lawyers have some of the highest.
So, while it’s important to win that cocktail party, it likely comes at the cost of other parenting goals.
One good goal is to have your kids be good people. Kids are missiles shot at a future I won’t be around for; I’d like those missiles to have a good impact.
Lots goes into being a good person, but empathy is clearly an important part. There’s a good bit of empirical research that rich people have less empathy than others. Why, exactly, that is isn’t abundantly clear, but one part of it appears to be that the wealthier you are, the more you are removed from seeing others who are in poverty and the suffering that comes with that.
By sending your kids to private school, you’re buying them out of exposure to what others endure.
If the only person you know of who hasn’t had Christmas is the poor kid on Polar Express, you’re likely to see the effects of poverty as kind of a downer that come with a pretty dull song, rather than a massively sad thing for people who you know personally.
My kids go to very economically diverse schools. One of my son’s friends who I like the least was at this grandfather’s house for Thanksgiving. When some uncle was going on about how poor people deserve to be poor because their lazy, this kid spoke up and told him he didn’t know what he was talking about; that there are kids at his school who don’t have enough to eat and worry when vacation comes because they won’t be able to get free school lunches. I’d give up 200 points on the SATs to have a kid like that.
It’s important, of course, for kids to get a good education. But there’s a lot that kids need to learn; and some of the most important things can’t be taught at a private school.
Also, it’s a serious waste of money.