I have teasingly told anxious parents that there are three guaranteed ways to get their kids into schools like Harvard, Stanford, or Yale:
1. They can be elected President or Vice-President of the United States.
2. They can ensure their child wins a gold, silver, or bronze Olympic medal, preferably in an individual event.
3. They can pay for the construction of a campus building.
A long-ago article in the “Washington Monthly” provides insights into a fourth strategy when asking, “Why Are Droves of Unqualified, Unprepared Kids Getting into Our Top Colleges?” The answer? “Because their parents are alumni.”
A Harvard admissions officer reportedly wrote on one applicant’s file, “Double lineage who chose the right parents.”
That article and last week’s revelation that some wealthy parents had paid a so-called independent admissions counselor millions of dollars to cheat, bribe, even doctor photos to get their youngsters into several of America’s elite colleges reminds me of an oft-repeated line from the classic movie “Casablanca.”
Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick, asks Captain Renault why he is closing down Rick’s nightclub, which has long provided the captain with special favors for turning a blind eye to questionable activities. Renault replies, tongue planted firmly in cheek, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”
Much hand-wringing has been done about the con-man counselor, corrupt coaches, and conspiring parents involved in the latest college admissions scandal. However, the entire situation is but an extreme example of some parents’ willingness to go to any lengths, even committing crimes, to help their children “succeed.”
In working with professors, I hear some complain about, “Today’s kids, all of whom received trophies,” whether or not they earned or deserved them. My response? Were trophies-for-all the kids’ idea?
A review of Hara Estroff Marano’s 2008 book, “A Nation of Wimps,” characterizes a generation of college students as, “Being raised in hothouses by well-off but overly anxious parents who throw time and money into raising perfect children.”
In his book, “Under Pressure: Rescuing Children From The Culture of Hyper-Parenting,” Carl Honore describes parents who have moved from being concerned to becoming obsessive about their children’s futures. Such parents micromanage their children’s lives, trying to shape them into perfect adults.
Both Honore and Marano conclude these attempts almost always fail.
The children of these rich and now infamous parents apparently didn’t know their successes in gaining admission to the colleges of their dreams had been engineered through deception and subsidized by bribery. The result is that many of these already privileged kids likely believed they had achieved their goals through their intelligence and hard work, rather than because they had chosen “the right parents.”
As he was writing an article about the scandal, The Atlantic writer Will Stancil confessed to realizing that his own admission to an elite university may well have come about because his father was an alumnus, adding, “Perhaps less was separating me from the admissions-scandal students than I’d thought.”
Yesterday’s hovering “Helicopter parents” have been replaced by today’s “Bulldozer parents,” who seek to remove any and all problems and obstacles in their children’s paths. Such misguided efforts serve to deprive young people of the character building experiences of failure and prevent the development of resilience so often reinforced through rejection.
As Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Stanford dean of freshmen observes, “Parents need to prepare kids for the road, instead of preparing the road for kids.”
Honore advises parents to find their own “inner voices” with regard to raising their children. In communities like the Napa Valley, there is so much that conspires to make parents insecure about whether they are being “good parents” who are paving paths to success for their children. This, in turn, leads to the obsessive behaviors that create so much pressure on their children.
Parents who do their kids’ homework, or construct their Science Fair projects while they play on their iGadgets, who write “personal statements,” or hire agents to get their kids into college through “side doors” are communicating not so subtle and regrettable messages to their children: I don’t believe in you, your ability to do things for yourself, or your capacity to survive, learn, and grow from disappointments.
However well-intentioned the parents entangled in this college admission scandal may have been, they have subjected their children to a level of humiliation and public shaming from which these young people may never recover. Sadly, it might also lead their children to question whether they chose “the right parents.”