What Parents Can Learn from SAT-gate
Pushing kids into the most elite schools and protecting them from failure are cornerstones of modern parenting. Should they be?
As dozens of individuals were arrested earlier this week as part of a nationwide college admissions scandal, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States attorney’s office missed two co-conspirators which many parents know all too well: the pride that comes from having a child attend a Name Brand School and our instinct to protect kids from failure.
The details of what the feds dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” are these: William “Rick” Singer, 58, of Newport Beach, Calif., facilitated cheating on the SAT and the ACT as well as creating bogus athletic profiles to facilitate students being admitted to elite universities. Between approximately 2011 and February 2019, Singer allegedly conspired with dozens of parents, athletic coaches, a university athletics administrator and others to use bribery and other forms of fraud to secure the admissions of students to colleges and universities including Yale University, Georgetown University, Stanford University, the University of Southern California and Wake Forest University, among others.
Singer was charged with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Also charged for their involvement in the scheme are 33 parents and 13 coaches and associates of Singer, including two SAT and ACT test administrators. Singer had people on the inside at several test centers who would correct student's answers to secure the score parents' wanted. He also had bribed coaches in sports such as sailing, waterpolo and volleyball to select the children of his clients as their picks for admission even when their high-school athletic profiles were fabricated. Among those implicated in the sprawling federal investigation are Lori Loughlin of “Full House” fame, her husband, the fashion executive Mossimo Giannulli, “Desperate Housewives” actress Felicity Huffman, as well as a leading private equity executive and the co-chairman of a prominent law firm.
For parents — particularly those of us who are raising kids in the highly competitive environments of New York and Los Angeles — it's important to look at the underlying forces that contributed to this scandal. If we are willing to believe that the parents who are caught up in the case genuinely wanted the best for their children, then the deplorable lengths to which they were willing to go demonstrate two aspects of modern parenting that have gotten out of control.
How Well My Kids Do = How Good a Parent I Am
Any parent who is honest with himself knows the sense of pride that comes from causally working into conversation the name-drop worthy institution where their child goes to school. The same goes for any academic or athletic honor they receive. We’ve all done it.
Ask me how my son's doing and you’ll get an earful about how he was voted middle-school president or his latest musical triumph. And when I was new to the parenting game and on the receiving end of these humblebrags, I often viewed the academic successes of older children as glowing reflections on the parents. "Those Winslows really have it together: a son at Stanford and a daughter at Andover. They must be great parents."
Equating successful parenting with where kids go to school can result in bad decisions, such as overlooking where minis might be the happiest and most motivated. “It’s natural for parents to want to do whatever they can to ensure their kids’ lives are good ones. For many though, this desire motivates a myopic focus on safeguarding their child’s path to an elite college, believing that in doing so, they will have done their job as parents. From the start, with good (albeit misguided) intentions, they sign their kids up for the “prerequisite” classes, get them in to “feeder” schools, protect them from making record-worthy mistakes and ensure their academically perfect records. Sort of an 'I can, so why should I not,' mentality,” says Dr. Bronwyn Charlton who, as part of her practice at the seedlingsgroup, works with families across the United States.
Another way to think about it is this: Should Happy, Well-Adjusted and Independent — rather than Harvard, Princeton and Yale — be the yardsticks for parenting success?
Not Allowing Kids to Fail
Nearly every parent is coming from a good place in wanting to protect their kids from failure. And one of the hardest things to do as a parent is to let go just enough so your child can skin a knee or fail a test. Once homework kicks in, it takes massive self-control on the part of Tiger Parents not to rewrite a history paper or correct math homework. A voice inside your head whispers, “All the other parents are helping their kids. My child is going to be last in the class.” As a result, some of the more poignant moments in the scandal are those in which parents asked Singer to juice their children's test scores, but to do it in such a way that the children think they actually got the great result themselves.
I see this kind of selective culling more and more — particularly with kids who play individual sports. I know parents of a high-school athlete who only let him play matches he can win and encourage him to skip tournaments in which the competition is fierce. His winning record is more important than the traditional lessons that winning and losing teach.
I’m not suggesting that the end result of helicopter parenting is paying for entrance into what Singer dubbed the “side door” of college admissions, but it has its downsides. Or as Dr. Charlton puts it, “Parent beliefs that doing well in school and gaining entrance to a highly selective college are the most important ingredients for securing a successful future, leads to unfounded fears that if they let up at all, their progeny might fail, and counterproductive strategies that neglect to raise a college student who is capable of acting in her own best interests, motivated to persevere by passion, or able to cope with situations that don’t go as planned. The sad irony is then that parents’ fear of jeopardizing their children’s future, often jeopardizes their children’s future.”
To put it another way, one of the most important life lessons for a young person is that failure is a road, not a wall. Without failure, greatness is harder to achieve and success is harder to savor. Unfortunately, the children of the wealthy and the celebrated who are now part of Singer’s scheme will have to learn these lessons the hard way.
John Brodie is the editor-in-chief of Maisonette.