The concept of an American Dream started with desires for religious freedom. By the 1800s, German immigrants came to America dreaming about upward mobility—something you couldn’t get in Europe. The 1900s saw the American Dream morph into consumerism—in order to avoid a post-war recession. (Go to college! Buy a house! We’ll give you a loan to have it all!)

Schools in the US have not so much created the Dream, but have clearly reinforced it. (No coincidence that the term American Dream emerged in 1931 just as compulsory schooling gained widespread traction.) It’s just that school is not a vehicle to get to the Dream. And in fact, the combination of compulsory school and a delusional American Dream is toxic for our children.

Chasing today’s American Dream (consumerism–upward mobility through wealth) is about letting external values define our own idea of success: Graduating college, getting a job, buying a house. These are all milestones we are raised to conquer, but they actually stifle our ability to define our own path.

The steps we are all encouraged to achieve the American Dream favor some people over others in ways we often don’t even notice.

College disproportionately harms girls. It’s harder to get into college for women than men. College does not make you more qualified for the workforce, and also delays entering the workforce, which is more harmful to women than men since women generally only want to work full-time before they have kids, so they have a very small window in order to grow a big career.

Dual-income homes disproportionately harm kids. Kids like being home with a parent. Of course. It’s nice for a kids to have someone around them who loves them. Middle-class parents do not need two parents working. If two parents are making equal incomes, then taking one away will not change a kid’s life.

Do the math. Even if both parents are making minimum wage, a parent does way more for the kids by being home than by making $10/hour. So when both parents choose to work outside the house, and no parent is at home, the choice is to benefit the parent’s pursuit of the American Dream. It’s putting the parents’ dreams before the taking care of the kids.

Buying a house disproportionately harms the middle class. If you are rich and you buy a house, you still have enough financial flexibility to make life choices as family needs arise. If you are middle class, you are locked into a huge financial commitment that will supersede other family needs.

And locking yourself into financial commitments snowballs. You move into a “good school district” and then you have to keep earning enough money to stay there. You commit to a mortgage and you can’t redirect that money to something you value more.

When you buy a house you feel compelled to buy furniture and other homeowner accoutrements when often renting furniture (and toys, and clothes, and books…) makes more sense.

More than being unfair, though, the American Dream is a mirage. You cannot grow up to be anything, you cannot be richer than your parents, you cannot get paid to do what you love. Who comes up with this stuff, anyway?

Regardless of how it develops, our schools convince kids to play by the rules. You buy into the Dream and then you buy into the idea that the only way to get to the Dream is via school.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re already doubting school is the path to the good life. The next step is to doubt that the good life people have been telling you about is not really all that good after all.

42 replies
  1. Matthew
    Matthew says:

    The assumptions in this article are pretty wide-sweeping. The “American Dream” is a concept, an idea you’ve chosen to define as: consumerism–upward mobility through wealth. That’s your definition of a concept that’s pretty much open to anyone’s interpretation. The “American Dream” is nothing but a concept. Dreams are not exclusive to America. Dreams are individual and all are allowed to conceive and achieve them as they see fit. You’re writing about your own conditioning. So be it, but it’s less than inspiring. Why not tell us how you’ve found something outside of the tired concepts put upon you? Feels like you’re now just regurgitating them upon on others. This is an article to yourself. Go on, break your own rules– epiphany awaits. Has nothing to do with school. Has everything to do with you.

    • Erin
      Erin says:

      Matthew –

      I respectfully disagree.

      There is so much general awareness about the concept of the American Dream and the way it impacts our lives.

      I think the TV show Weeds does a great job in the first season playing off this widely accepted vision of the American Ideal. And, appropriately, the theme song for the show is Little Boxes https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Boxes. This is just one example in our pop culture of an awareness that American society widely values: college, job, house, car, 2.5 kids, dog, white picket fence…but that true happiness lies when one abandons the formula and makes their own rules.

      – Erin

      • Matthew
        Matthew says:

        Once more, ideas and conceptualization. Come from your own experience. What is it this “American Dream” has done to you and how have you risen above it as a concept? You’re generalizing about a whole lot of nameless others who you really can’t speak for. What have you done to rise above these so-called “American values”? Seems like all you are doing is retelling a story about others but what have you done to “abandon the formula” (<idea/concept) and make your own rules? Let's hear about your own rules, I'm curious. Enlighten us, please.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          Matthew, all social sciences generalize to better understand our culture. So it seems disingenuous to say this is an unfair way to learn about ourselves.

          Erin, I love the theme song for Weeds. Thanks for the great example.

          Penelope

      • MBL
        MBL says:

        Erin, the Boxtrolls sent me scurrying to find that song last year. I looked it up via your Weeds suggestion and LOVE that they had various artists record it for different episodes. Regina Spektor’s is my favorite thus far. I wish more of them had recordings of all of the verses.

        Excellent call on relating that to this post! The intro to Weeds is perfect–especially the Daily Grind shot.

        Malvina Reynolds 1962

        Little boxes on the hillside,
        Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
        Little boxes on the hillside,
        Little boxes all the same.
        There’s a green one and a pink one
        And a blue one and a yellow one,
        And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
        And they all look just the same.

        And the people in the houses
        All went to the university,
        Where they were put in boxes
        And they came out all the same,
        And there’s doctors and lawyers,
        And business executives,
        And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
        And they all look just the same.

        And they all play on the golf course
        And drink their martinis dry,
        And they all have pretty children
        And the children go to school,
        And the children go to summer camp
        And then to the university,
        Where they are put in boxes
        And they come out all the same.

        And the boys go into business
        And marry and raise a family
        In boxes made of ticky tacky
        And they all look just the same.
        There’s a green one and a pink one
        And a blue one and a yellow one,
        And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
        And they all look just the same.

        • Jennifer
          Jennifer says:

          Ironically, I learned the song “Little Boxes” in music class in fourth grade, I think it was. 1979. I remember it clearly because I found it so disturbing.

      • Karelys
        Karelys says:

        I was JUST thinking about Weeds last night while driving home with the kids in the back.

        Why was she attracted to the Mexican dude that was super controlling?
        Ick!

        I know this is not the point of this thread but I am sure I can bring it back around if someone will have a conversation with me about it.

    • Karen
      Karen says:

      You appear to have been very successful in proving brainwashing does exist in our culture. Her point is that American parents need to start putting their children before material things. I have been working with parents for years and find most of them would die if they had to stay home with the children they brought into the world. Why? Because they have been brainwashed into believing the best thing they can do for their kids is to give them life, drop them off at daycare for someone else to raise while they go out and earn money for that trip to Disneyland. Now this is not all parents but far too many. Parents that have no time to attend school board meetings never miss a football game at the local high school or on TV. The public school system is not educating our children but indoctrinating them. They are no longer safe for our children and I believe the environment is abusive to young children. And believe me there are a lot of others that are informed and know this. It this that are not informed, have no clue what is going on inside the walls of the school or those that refuse to see the truth because they would be guilted into doing something and of course they don’t have the time to get involved. Leave your kids in the public school system and you only have you to blame for the eventual results. Look at how many young folks are flocking to support Socialist/Communist Bernie Sanders.

  2. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Where I live, Indianapolis, you can buy a house in an expensive suburb and get “good” schools, or live within the old* city limits for a ton less and get the “bad” Indianapolis Public Schools.

    OR…maybe you can live within the old city limits for a ton less, not NEED the second income, and homeschool your kids. There are many charming walkable neighborhoods full of great older homes (late 1800s-early 1900s) here.

    *In Indy, the city merged with the county in 1970; the “bad” schools are within the pre-merger city limits.

  3. Julie
    Julie says:

    Don’t you own a farm? Do you know there’s a college gap with far more women GOING TO COLLEGE AND FINISHING. where do you get facts from? And you seem a great parent but also Amy chua with lessons and pushing kids. When did that trend happen. People weren’t like this when I was growing up

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      First, when you ask where I get my facts, you should click the link. That’s the beauty of reading on the Internet instead of in print — the person writing can show you where all the assumptions come from.

      That said, far more women than men apply to college, and colleges want to keep the classes as close to 50/50 as possible. So it’s easier for men to get in than women.

      Penelope

      • Julie
        Julie says:

        I’m so skeptical and all that means is bottom rung people lose out. People lose out unfairly imo to affirmative action. Women are in aggregate becoming more successful than men. Men earn more because they work more and tend not to take care of kids. In African American community ridiculous how women are out working men. It’s a big social problem.

  4. Julie
    Julie says:

    Ps I know you don’t want your kids in college and consider it waste of money so why not send one to music school and the other to a state school or tech school. They need an opportunity to be independent without mom. If they decide to drop out they can. I can’t homeschool for more than an hour. I get a lot done and the day is mine. I tried a box curriculum was awful so I got one math book grade level we complete it. We do reading not a lot of writing because it’s not interesting to my son and I think he’s above grade level. So one hour at home versus 4.5 in school (subtracting lunch and non academic time) shows it’s hard to educate in big groups. I think home work is a joke for kids not in high school. The parents do it half the time.

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    The paragraph where you mention college disproportionately harms girls who want a career and a family makes me think of other options. Options that may include a specific, targeted two year instead of a four year college degree (or not) with the purpose of establishing a small business that can be run from home. The small, home based business could be set up while working outside the house before the first child is born. It seems this long range planning/goal setting would be better as it allows for work environment and work load/hours to be self determined rather than try to cram a big career in a small window.

  6. Julie
    Julie says:

    How old are your kids now? Mine are 9 and almost 3. Are any homeschoolers here near westchester ny? We would drive up to an hour in any direction. My sons shy but very nice. Loves games running (we just started this seriously because he’s fast) movies cooking going on train and really wants friends. My 2 year old is the most energetic gal so not the sit still with crayons type comes with us on adventures. I don’t care about age so long as there’s good interaction. Thanks!!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You can find local groups by searching online by location. For example “westchester” and “homeschool”. The area where you live is swarming with homeschool families.

      Penelope

      • Julie
        Julie says:

        Thanks but I tried a homeschool group and it was Christian focused. I’m not anti Christian but I’m half Jewish non practicing so a no go. The non Christians were largely ultra liberal hate America types and I’m doing classical education. I mean I only met the very involved moms there are many who don’t attend but it’s very hard. What do you do to socialize?

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          I personally don’t do well in large groups and prefer small groups or one on one. There is no shortage of homeschooling groups in my area. A few searches and I was able to find several secular inclusive groups near you. If groups aren’t your thing either, then focus on more activity based friendships. What does your 9yo like to do? What are some interests they have that you can dedicate more time to pursuing? Do you often see the same kids at these activities? See if any friendships bloom there, I have personally found that it is easier for my kids to make friendships naturally with other kids in a shared interest than just trying to find other homeschooled kids. In fact, our friends that also homeschool aren’t close enough to us to meet with very often, so many of my kids friends are in school both public and private.

        • MBL
          MBL says:

          You might want to try out a wide variety of groups regardless of mindset/theme. Go with the intention not of “finding your tribe” but just one or two families with whom you mesh. Maybe someone who is conservative and in a religious group, but very mild and open-minded regarding religion. Or someone through a Charlotte Mason group or The well trained mind.

          And, as others have suggested, go with interests. Just make sure you are willing to chat up anyone and everyone who strikes your fancy.

          Plan on kissing a lot of frogs! Best of luck to you!!

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          That happened to me, too. Actually, a homeschool group near us changed their bylaws so they could keep our Jewish family out.

          I was shocked, but I got over it. And what I found is that we mostly meet people through my kids’ interests. We hang out with families whose schedules are like ours because our kids do the same stuff.

          When kids are younger this seems impossibly far away, but like everything with children, it happens so fast.

          Penelope

    • Jessica
      Jessica says:

      Ask the admin to accept you into Fairfield County Homeschoolers (CT) on Facebook. There are many programs and activities posted and we have met many people from Westchester.

  7. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    This is one of those posts I feel unsure about. It targets a segment of the American population and kind of makes it out to be everybody, when it is not. Many people do not got to college, do not work, and do not own homes, and their lives are not that great.

  8. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Getting a higher education, owning property, and earning income are all things people can use to measure their socio-economic success. What would you replace those things with? How can the middle class get what they need to maintain or improve their standard of living if they don’t want to go down these traditional roads?

    • Julie
      Julie says:

      It all depends right? Owning a home and being house poor isn’t good nor is home owning when you need mobility. People really think homes are good investments but they’re not. People just don’t know where else to put their money. Homes are good for laying roots and forcing savings

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        I understand the arguments being laid out, I’m curious what the alternatives are for maintaining or improving a middle class life. In many areas, renting a home costs more than owning it. Renting allows one to be more mobile, but a lot of people like placing roots once they have kids and start getting plugged in to their community. What are some alternatives that do not cause one to be dependent on extended family permanently?

        If one wants to marry a high earner and not have dual-income, how do you make yourself an attractive mate if you don’t have anything to contribute? Looks and personality only get one so far.

        • Cáit
          Cáit says:

          I think you touched an a fascinating aspect of college degree, it’s use as a class signal, for employment, for marriage, etc.

        • Zellie
          Zellie says:

          Wow, this surprises me. What can one offer in a marriage? Looks and personality only go so far. Running a household, raising kids and being there to support him is a lot to offer. Have men evolved past food, sex & being appreciated/admired as the things that give them greatest comfort and contentment in a relationship? I don’t mean to disrespect men at all. I admire men. My observation & experience has been that if there is enough money to sustain the home & family and there is a kind and loving partner the second income is gladly given up. I guess it depends on the mindset and expectations of the man as he looks for a wife.

    • Karelys
      Karelys says:

      Dude, Liz! you’re brilliant and now we’re talking!

      Cait too.

      What, oh lord, are the alternatives!?

      I’ve been diving into this for the past few months.

      And I’ve come up with a few creative ways but first off, you have to be super clear on what you want.

      Define what abundant life looks like to you.

      Here are a few ways that can help me get there:

      1. Communal housing.
      2. Saving money abroad (Venezuela is dirt cheap and Mexico is close by.)
      3. Rent if it’s cheap. Alternative housing too (if you call it that. I live in a mobile home. It’s cute. I have a big lawn but not too big so it’s pretty and well maintained. I live in a low cost of living place. I am neighbors with m mom.)
      4. Put a lot of weight into your tribe/community. I take care of my family and they take care of me. I pay my mom to watch my kids and she does my dishes and cooks me food in turn.
      (There are many people who would do so you just have to go out and search. Older women without family and limited ability to make income, etc.).
      5. Travel with work or volunteering or farming in other countries so you can bring your kids.

      ps. The idea of communal housing can totally allow the participants to work part time and spend more time doing whatever else they want.

      Nothing lasts forever. So a lot of this can be done in stints.

      I know the ideas seem extreme when you’re used to thinking a certain way. What I love about immersing myself in different cultures is that it forces me to look at problem solving from a different way.

      And the world opens up.

  9. Cáit
    Cáit says:

    I always think about these 20 something permanent students who are like 25 and in Italy doing ” fieldwork” for their useless degree and how fun their lives are even though they only earn 15k a year. I decided it was because they spend their money on travel and eating out instead of mortgages or retirement savings. Young people with mortgages are always so stuck and missing out.
    But my question is: why can’t we add kids to this? Like the student life but with kids in tow. Or does having kids change what you want too much?

    • Karelys
      Karelys says:

      They can!

      There are programs where you can sign up to farm in communities around the world and bring your kids with you if you want.

      That’s just one of the ways.

  10. Julie
    Julie says:

    Liberal arts students don’t even
    Read classical literature anymore and are largely spoiled acting like world owes them got their degree choice. I don’t want everyone to go into stem but liberal arts needs attitude adjustment. I think people in stem careers aren’t as happy. Just my observation. Less social group. Longer hours. Very few are at helm. A lot of snotty detached personalities.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Uh oh.

      I’m someone with a snotty detached personality, and it’s gotten me pretty far in life.

  11. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    AND in defense of the shepherded masses, you know, a lot of people have woken up and are waking up to the idea that home-ownership is not what it used to be. And it used to be a good deal, many boomers made quite a bit of money off their homes, tax-free. So you can’t say they were lulled into some American Dream that didn’t pan out, it did pan out. And most younger people are much warier about homeownership. Which is why I don’t think homes will ever increase in value like they used to, oh maybe in some hot neighborhoods here and there, but never again a general trend like it was for 60-70 years.

    And the college thing, I have only ever heard PT and James Altucher say college is not the way to go, and both went to pretty good colleges. People I know who did not go wish they did. I am glad I went. I would recommend kids go. I think ‘going to college’ means different things to different people, and there are many paths one can take. Perhaps plunking down 100 grand for a fancy school and a liberal arts degree is not good, but most reasonable people aren’t doing that anyways.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      There’s nothing like hearing someone who was born into wealth talk about how we should be more enlightened and stop striving so much, is there?

      I couldn’t really afford to be downwardly mobile from where I was born.

  12. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    At least in the American Dream, the parents get to live with their children. In the Philippine Dream, or for that matter the dream of many people living in a developing country, a parent or both parents work overseas in a developed country like America, send money home, and come back after all children finish college. But since there are few jobs at home, the children also work overseas, and the vicious cycle continues.

    Now, we are learning that virtual work can help people earn dollars while living at home. But most people who work online have studied in college at least.

  13. ic
    ic says:

    Nice post! I like what you say and find our family to be a but stuck. I am master degree educated and have loans now staying home with two little kids. My husband works full time. We own a home and all that comes with it. We have all we need but are barely making it to save or pay off debt. Our mortgage is our biggest bill. What should we do? Rent? Move to another state? (We live in western New York.) any solutions? Have you read “radical homemakers” by Shannon Hayes?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I haven’t read that book. But I just ordered it from our library. I’m fascinated by how much less i can live off of when I live on a farm. There is less to buy. There is less to want. There is more to do for day-to-day life. I am not sure that i think it’s a great alternative for everyone. But I am sure that it is so so so much cheaper a way to live than living in the city — any city.

      Penelope

  14. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    We were a dual-income family but I recently lost my job. It was such a relief! Now I am happily homeschooling my own children again rather than paying someone else to do it. We decided to sell our expensive house and we are buying one almost half as much so I can stay home. The “American Dream” is completely bogus. Go with whatever you know will make you happy.

  15. Peggy
    Peggy says:

    Not buying a house has been one of the smartest things that we have done. We’ve been able to accomplish many higher priorities:

    Paying off student loans, becoming and remaining debt-free even through sometimes heavy medical and car repair bills
    Transitioning to having me stay at home full-time
    Moving closer to my husband’s new job
    Homeschooling
    Putting aside a decent start to a retirement fund
    Funding the startup of a small side business
    Continuing to have children, and being able to live in somewhat cramped conditions for a time before packing up and moving to a larger place (without having to buy or sell a house)
    Beginning to save for our children’s “launch funds” (for college, or something else)

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