The college admissions cheating scandal is particularly delicious because it is a chance to indulge a favorite national pastime: judging the rich and powerful (second only to our pastime of idolizing them).
Before we veer too far into thinking this behavior is confined to elite parents, ask yourself: have you never pulled a string for your kid? To get them a better teacher, a better doctor, a slot in that summer camp that was full? Show us a middle-to-upper-class parent who hasn’t, or a parent without the means to reach the string who wouldn’t pull it if they could.
This is a scandal over the crisis of the cost of college and the price to get there, be it in bribes or tuition or stressing our kids to the point of breaking them. It’s also a reflection of a crisis in parenting. Every one of us is vulnerable to the culture of competition that pulled these parents over the line from pulling a little string to breaking a moral code, and the law. And we all have a responsibility to help change that culture.
Here’s a second question: when you pulled that string, was it for a need, or a want? Was it for your child’s sake, or for yours? Out of a desire to do what’s best for them, or out of your own fear that the worst would happen if you didn’t?
Fear makes us controlling, because we long for certain outcomes. But at what cost? We may not have spent $450,000 to get our kid into Georgetown, but what is the price to our children’s moral development or their success in life when we cheat (or even just fudge a little) to give them access to opportunities they may be otherwise unprepared for?
Our children have their own path, which we ignore to our peril when we seek to make them our legacies, live out our fantasies, or help them skirt the struggles we ourselves had to endure in becoming who we are. If our kids are going to feel competent and good about themselves, they have to earn their own achievements. They also have to own their failures.
We might argue that because our children’s generation is the first one predicted to do worse economically overall than their parents’ before them, they need every advantage we can give them. But there is a precedent in the teachings of Jesus, St. Francis, Gandhi and other spiritual sages for a life of downward mobility. A life that chooses simplicity over consumption, community over individuality, and integrity over opportunism.
We live in a deeply interconnected world, not zero-sum so much as zero-calculus: every action wealthy parents take to reassure their children’s social and economic status has an incalculable effect on low-income children, and their children, and their children. There’s no irony in the fact that Mr. Singer used a nonprofit that claimed to help less advantaged students get into college to launder the money paid to get the super advantaged admitted instead.
This scandal is in many ways just a reflection of the current culture of parenting taken to an extreme.
It’s not news that rich kids get into good schools all the time because their family’s name is on a building, or the trustees hope it will be soon. We both went to colleges where legacy kids were pretty much a dime a dozen.
But how are we going to change the culture of overparenting? Of parenting out of fear and competition? We have a responsibility as parents not just to our own children but to the entire world they will inhabit as they grow, including to other people’s children who are excluded from these scaffolding opportunities that might have made them into world-transforming teachers, innovators and leaders.
Jesus said, not as a recommendation but as a koan about the way the world actually was, “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
The Hebrew scriptures have a parenting proverb we’d all do well to live by: “Raise your child in the way they should go, and when they are old, they will not depart from it.” One way of hearing “the way they should go” is not as conventional wisdom about societal success or even parental values. We can hear it as a presumption that every child has a God-given nature and purpose, unique and beautiful as the grain in a piece of wood. We parents didn’t create the wood, but we are here to help shape it--discovering its grain, and working with it, not against it.
Ellen often has conversations with parents in her practice about whether or not to share ALL of their kid’s testing results with the private school, that mom or dad went to, or their older sibling goes to. Ellen tries to gently encourage them to share who their kid really is - warts and all. If the school refuses them, isn’t it possible that isn’t the best fit school for their kid? And that if they get in they may struggle and, even more likely, be miserable?
How are those kids going to feel? The ones who didn’t know their parents bribed someone to take their SAT’s or the coach to believe they were an elite athlete in a sport they didn’t even play? Probably as though who they REALLY are isn’t good enough. Not for the Ivy League but even more devastating...not for their parents.
When we force our kids onto a path that isn’t right for them, mold them into something they aren’t, we may convince ourselves we are helping, nurturing, doing what’s best for them, but we may actually miss their better nature. The son of parenting “expert” Jane Buckingham who paid for someone else to take his ACT’s issued a public apology today, for something he was previously unaware he had done. He said in part, “I take comfort in the fact that this might help finally cut down on money and wealth being such a heavy factor in college admissions.”
If we pay close attention to our child, to who they really are, and what they really need to become themselves (happy, moral, purposeful and generous), they just might make this world we are threatening to leave them a better place.
— Ellen and Molly