Parenting: Bragging Rights

There are trophy cars and trophy wives. And now trophy kids? In suburban San Diego and in many other parts of the United States, the latest marker of prestige is having a child admitted to the school district's Gifted And Talented Education program, known in San Diego as GATE.

The gifted label is an educational status symbol in certain neighborhoods, says David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, and author of The Hurried Child. "In upper-middle-class communities, the label is really for the parents, not the kids," he says. "The problem is that parents push to have kids who should not be in such programs labeled gifted."

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Last spring at a second-grade birthday party in an upper-middle-class, largely white San Diego suburb, parents talked openly in front of their children about which students were admitted to GATE. Pamela, a mother of two, said that competition over the GATE program is palpable when parents congregate.

Jennifer, a 37-year-old mother of a first grader, admits that the gifted label is important. "To a certain degree, I feel my daughter's success as a student is a reflection on me and my parenting." While standing outside the school recently, she overheard mothers talking about which students were and were not in GATE. "I felt panicked that these women knew so much about every child," she says. Psychologist Ken Christian, founder of the Maximum Potential Project, which is aimed at guiding gifted children in suburban San Francisco, says many parents put enormous pressure on their children: "Some will go to great lengths to prepare kids for these tests." Gloria McMillan, director of San Diego City Schools' GATE program, disagrees that competition is causing parents to go overboard. "They simply want the best education they can get for their children," she says.

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