How I joined New York's tribe of Tiger Mothers
No one is too young for tutoring in the city that never sleeps, writes a shocked Celia Walden
I'm standing behind a glass screen watching my two-year-old daughter have a play-date. I've never thought of myself as a Tiger Mother, but today my shoulder blades are rigid, my throat is dry, and I'm muttering a low stream of encouragement like a punter at the races.
Play-dates, of course, are rarely the anxiety-free affairs they're made out to be. If your child isn't clubbing another over the head with a giant Elmo, someone else's is. And just when you're congratulating yourself on your offspring's developmental prowess, some four-eyed brat will run up and liken the darkening sky above to Cézanne's Bay of Marseilles.
And this is no ordinary play-date. It's costing $450 (€325) an hour and it's being presided over not by a mother or nanny, but a renowned neuropsychologist. Then there's the fact that it may just decide my daughter's future.
Welcome to Aristotle Circle: the educational consultants for the sons and daughters of New York's elite. Just this week the British Good Schools Guide warned that the tutoring of two-, three- and four-year-olds is "nonsense, oppressive and driven by anxiety" – but try telling that to the locals.
"No parent wants to think, 'My child is going to grow up to be average'," explains Suzanne Rheault, the consultancy's chief executive. The Boston-born former Wall Street analyst co-founded Aristotle Circle in 2008, having spotted a gap in the market when trying to prepare her own children for admission to New York's notoriously elite kindergartens.
"When it came to getting them through the tests kindergartens have here in NY, I thought, 'What on earth is this?' Because although the assessments are designed to look like ordinary play-dates, they're actually simulated classrooms very much like this one," she explains.
Every other exam in a child's life is prepared for, Rheault notes, and yet here were parents desperately trying to get children as young as four through the early IQ tests laid on by the Educational Records Bureau without any tutoring.
Yet these early tests, she maintains, will ultimately determine whether a child can get into private schools such as Trinity, which includes Lachlan Murdoch, son of Rupert, and Ivanka Trump, entrepreneur daughter of Donald, among its alumni.
"New York is the Olympics of tutoring and competitiveness," says Suzanne. "It's a perfect storm because you have failing public schools, good public schools which are overcrowded and then insanely competitive schools. Some of those New York private pre-schools have lower acceptance rates than Harvard.
"I've seen parents devastated – devastated – when their kids don't get into their schools of choice, which is why preparation is key."
Suzanne experienced that devastation when her daughter went through the admissions process. "I'd said to my daughter beforehand: 'You're such a clever girl – don't be shy to answer the question when you know the answer.'"
But her sage advice backfired. Her daughter not only answered the questions addressed to her, but those addressed to the other children, too. "That was it," shrugs Rheault. "She was done. She 'did not demonstrate impulse control' so she didn't get in."
Another child, who drew a family portrait in which her mother held a Martini glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other, was condemned to a similar fate, while a boy who was asked to "speak up" and subsequently started shouting out his replies was also cast out into the cold.
"Sometimes they'll put four crayons on the table when there are five kids and see what the one who doesn't get a crayon does. Impulse control is a big one."
For these children to be punished simply for trying wasn't just unfair but avoidable, says Monique Bloom, Aristotle Circle's chief administrative officer and director of programme development.
"The testers are looking for socio-emotional issues, so if in that 45-minute session your child is a bit shy and not looking the adult in the eye, they might not get in. Which is why in our play-date counselling sessions, we're watching to see if a child is looking the other kids and adults in the eye and, if they're not, telling them to practise that – amongst other things."
So far, my daughter hasn't committed any cardinal play-date errors. "She's engaging with the others," the neuropsychologist informs me. "And she's got good fine motor skills." Far from assuaging my anxiety, however, this just gets my propellers spinning faster.
Good fine motor skills are all well and good but I – and every New York mother – secretly crave flabbergasted expressions and head shakes ("I can't say we've ever seen this before: we recommend you start the Harvard pre-admissions process right now").
Suzanne confirms that, in the main, it's this desire for "enrichment", not "keeping up", that leads parents to Aristotle Circle. "Parents will come to me and say: 'I think my child might be amazing at chess.' With a little help he or she could go far. Twenty years ago, tutoring was for kids who were struggling. Now parents are thinking, 'How do we take them to the next level?'"
One answer, they believe, lies in these mock play-dates, which have been oversubscribed from the day Aristotle Circle started offering them in 2010.
Indeed, the tutoring service has proved so successful that it now works with children all the way up from pre-kindergarten to post-graduate level. "We've been able to take away that fear of the unknown," says Suzanne. "And give parents back some sense of control."
It was this word "control" that worried me. Surely these tutoring sessions were more about parental status than the children's mental well-being? And yet my daughter, currently attempting a self-portrait (how much of the page she fills up will tell us a lot about her neurodevelopment), looks happy and unpressurised.
"Of course our parents want to feel proud of where their kids end up going to school," Monique concedes, "and we do have helicopter parents who want their kids to be here five times a week, but we always discourage this. We tell them that the kids won't have a good experience that way, because it's important for them to be enjoying themselves and finding new and exciting things out every time.
"Still, it's key to remember that if the parents are not stressed, the kids won't be either. Ultimately nobody wants to be the only parent whose child goes in cold to these tests – from kindergarten upwards. And as they get older the stakes will only get higher, so it's about whether your child has an edge.
"Take your daughter: she seems very verbal, but you might find that she has a harder time at the playground. It's like a pizza: if one slice is bigger, another might be smaller."
As I – now in fully fledged snarling Tiger Mum mode – expound on my daughter's various skills, assuring Monique and Suzanne that she's "the whole pizza", the neuropsychologist hurries over. "She's eaten all her cheddar penguins," she frowns. "And now she's upset and trying to take more."
Just like that, my dreams of Harvard evaporate. What's their play-date availability like next week?
For more information on Aristotle Circle, visit aristotlecircle.com