14 Mar 2011: Good Parents Send Their Kids to Private School, Don't They?

The Bankwest press release was crafted to provoke controversy. “More Australians Choose a Good Time over Kids Education.” It had the same flavour as the bank’s offering when it released similar market research last year. “Aussie families prefer holidays and Botox to private school education.”

Yes, the Bankwest “Social Indicator Series” is back, demonstrating once again that some Australian parents won’t forgo dining out, yoga classes, movies or holidays to pay fees for a non-government school.

Not only are parents who don’t sacrifice to send their kids to private school vacuous and selfish, they’re stupid, too. As the press release makes clear, parent satisfaction with private schools is on the increase, while those who send their kids to public school are increasingly downcast.

Bankwest’s spokesman, Adrian Bradley, explains the problem clearly. Parents just “aren’t prepared to budge on lifestyle [despite] the widely held perception that parents will sacrifice nearly anything in the interests of their kids”.

Are those who sacrifice house renovations, family holidays, pools, dinner, yoga classes or movies to pay for private school good parents, while those who refuse to give up such “luxuries” bad?

Bankwest thinks so, for its own self-interested reasons. Parents who refuse to sweat about their incapacity to pay close to $15,000 per year per darling to send their children to non-government schools are decidedly uninterested in the savings products the bank sells. An absence of parental anxiety about “planning ahead” to secure their children’s educational future is bad for business.

But back in the real world, who the good and bad parents are is less clear. If I hadn’t done yoga when I had two children under two, I would have been a snarling, raving, stressed-out mess. I still remember my now 13-year-old looking up at me as we marched off the beach on the last day of a long-ago family holiday. He was two. “Can we come here always?” he asked, and I knew what he meant.

Can we come to this place where you and Daddy are always around and no one is rushing off to work or taking me to creche or cramming me into a trolley so we can do the supermarket shopping? Can we come to this place where everyone isn’t busy and we’re together all the time? Call it a luxury, but our yearly family holiday is the glue that holds my clan together. Sacrifice it to cover less than half the fees for one child to attend private school? Not on your nelly.

A house with a pool is a drawcard for the sort of informal neighbourhood gatherings that build community. Experts advise parents to take time each week to have dinner or spend time together without the kids if they want to save their marriage. Renovating one’s house could mean the addition of a flat so the kids can spend more time with grandma, or an open-plan kitchen that allows parents to cook while yakking to the kids.

There is nothing wrong with Australians arguing passionately and loudly about what makes a good parent. Parenting matters and, for many of us, raising our corner of the next generation is the most important job we’ll ever have. It is both right and human that we would look for rules and examples to follow, and strive to measure up.

The problem is that while old ideals of good motherhood and fatherhood have been discredited, new standards have yet to evolve. Most mothers under 40 would likely reject the 1950s view that a good mother does not work outside the home, but disagree about the right mix of paid and home-based work a good mother should undertake. Modern men, too, are clear they want to be different to their own fathers, more involved and less consumed by the demands of earning, but are also unsure how to get the balance right.

Uncertainty about what a good parent is makes us vulnerable to anxiety and guilt about getting it wrong. The Bankwest survey is an attempt to leverage those emotions to serve the bank’s bottom line. It follows a long and unfortunate Australian tradition of using the public/private school issue as a proxy for debate about who is and isn’t a good parent.

A diverse community will have diverse values about what makes a good parent. Where liberty is prized, and people of different backgrounds live side-by-side, good parenting standards may not be ideals to which we all aspire, but minimum standards of “good enough” parenting below which no one ought fall.

The capacity of parents to defer their own needs to meet their child’s is one such bottom line, though parents will disagree about which needs are most important.

I sacrificed for my children, but only to give them what I thought really mattered. A calm and healthy mother, married parents and shared memories of happy times together were what I saw as essential to their future happiness and success.

Saving, borrowing or spending up to half our income to pay for private school was never on the agenda.