When the cable news outlets began to fill with reports of a college admissions scandal, I felt sick and angry for the forty years of my students who expended effort to accumulate acceptable grade point averages, to achieve the SAT or ACT scores required by colleges, and to scrape together enough money to fund their college educations. These are the hoops through which most young people must jump just to begin the journey to a college degree. I happen to think these kids were/are better for their endeavors.
The stories behind last week’s headlines detailed a conspiracy by the rich and famous to buy admission for their children to our country’s most prestigious colleges and universities. Although coaches and administrators have also been implicated, it is the behavior of the parents I find most egregious. They represent an extreme breed of helicopter parents who, in some cases, made their children co-conspirators in the manipulation of test scores and falsification of athletic participation to make sure their offspring were admitted to the “right” schools.
While these particular parents have reached new heights – or depths – such misplaced behavior may begin quite innocently. When I used to evaluate 4-H project books for sewing and nutrition, I occasionally found a member’s book completed in adult handwriting. I realized that a busy parent probably meant to help a young member finish required work at the last minute. But the teacher in me preferred wading through less-than-perfect handwriting or child-like answers completed by the member because such responses represented what that child had learned. We adults must resist the debilitating thought process of “it’s easier to do it myself” if our kids have any chance of developing essential skills and behaviors.
I am most disturbed by the conspiratorial hovering of these news-making parents because, in an attempt to give their children “everything,” they have robbed them of so much more.
At the very least, the parents charged have devalued the true meaning of a college education by emphasizing reputation over experience. These celebrities, business owners, CEO’s, and other professionals arranged to have their children admitted to “top” schools, I am assuming, for the status associated with the institutions in question. I have always been of the opinion that students can receive crummy educations at Ivy League schools or fantastic ones at Podunk U. – it all depends on how hard students work, not where they go.
These parents of social and financial privilege have also failed to provide a strong foundation of roots and wings for their children. By replacing the true attributes of their sons and daughters with fake résumés, they have seriously weakened the root system and clipped the fledgling wings of the kids they love who are trying to launch themselves into their own futures.
Even sadder, the parents involved have seriously shortchanged their children at a crucial time in life. Instead of hiring proctors to change incorrect entrance exam answers, they should have been teaching their children how to get up when they fall, how to deal with disappointment, how to regroup. Instead of pasting their children’s faces on the bodies of other student athletes, they should have been modeling a decision-making process that eventually leads to independence. I cannot imagine a crueler blow to a child’s self-esteem than watching parents deem his/her accomplishments so lacking as to necessitate spending thousands of dollars to buy admission to a particular institution of higher learning.
How can young people learn to celebrate their achievements or to dig deeper and try again if their parents do not demonstrate that behavior in their own lives? How can kids just starting out learn to face obstacles if their parents remove every last stumbling block? How can children learn to move forward if their parents do not trust them to do so?
In addition to taking away so many opportunities and responsibilities essential for young people poised on the brink of adulthood, these parents have succeeded in intensifying the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. Their misguided efforts have served only to widen the divide plaguing our country and to make the playing field even more unlevel.
We all need to guard against smoothing the way too much for our young people. It is unnecessary to make growing up harder just for hard’s sake – life can be difficult enough on its own. However, even if we adults desire to give our children what we ourselves did not have growing up, when we constantly run interference by removing every conceivable bump and jagged edge, we also remove any possibility of our kids learning from their own experiences.
These 33 parents, consumed by appearances and reputations, chose to make their children’s educational futures just another glitzy accessory to flash in front of those they wish to impress. University namedropping at the cocktail parties and in the boardrooms of the elite must be all the rage for those willing to spend a half million dollars on admission to an “in” school. Designer shoes, sprawling mansions, luxury automobiles, and now USC or Yale have become the symbols of high life. The children themselves, successfully ensconced in the college of their parents’ choice, may actually be functioning as brand-name accessories these days. I have a sneaking suspicion that these parents who conspired to buy the latest in college educations for their children actually did it for themselves.