"I think it's very reasonable for parents to choose to work less in order to have more face time with their children, even if that means their children attend a school where they're not challenged as much as the parents might like," Lareau told me. She added: "Many parents I interview are anxious about their children's economic futures. But I think they have an exaggerated sense of the risks involved if they don't give their children 'the best' of everything."
It's certainly gratifying to have an academic study tell me what intuitively seems true: that to the extent I can influence whether James and Oscar grow up to be happy, successful adults, the time I spend with them is more important than the average SAT scores or the number of Advanced Placement offerings at their schools.
As a well-educated, middle-income family, it's also a relief to be given reasons not to shoehorn ourselves into the most expensive suburban towns. A recent Brookings Institution study found that housing in the highest-scoring school districts in a metropolitan area was 2.4 times as expensive as housing in the lowest-performing districts. In Washington, the difference between a home in the top 20 percent vs. the bottom 20 percent of school districts is more than $200,000. Homes in the Washington area's very best school districts would be an even higher reach.
That's a lot of money. For most families, including ours, buying into an elite school district as opposed to an average one would require sacrifices in lots of other areas. And if it's true that how well a kid fares hinges more on the quality of his family life than any other single factor, working longer hours to earn more money to send our kids to the best K-12 schools is a self-defeating formula.