March 13, 2019
Parents across the Internet are aghast at the arrest of 50 people across the country—including actresses and coaches at exclusive colleges—in a massive college admissions scandal.
Once the dust settles on the criminal case and needed systemic reforms, I hope we will look back on this episode as the moment when overparenting hit its zenith and began a slide into obscurity. For years, psychologists and authors have bemoaned the impact of helicopter parenting on children’s self-image, mental health, independence, resilience, and capability. We all know parents who blame schoolyard tussles on the other kid, who argue with teachers to boost their children’s grades, who invest thousands of dollars in tutors and coaches, who would like to bubble wrap them to avoid any bumps or bruises. This episode is the natural—if unethical and illegal—extension of the desire to prop up our children and to prevent them from ever experiencing a setback.
Do the parents involved in “Operation Varsity Blues” really think so little of their children that they need to cheat and find an expensive “side door” in order to get them into college?
It’s an important lesson to any of us who are tempted to put a finger on the scale in order to boost our offspring’s chances of making the travel soccer team, getting into the advanced math class, or winning a role in the school musical. When we start to care more than our kids do about their accomplishments, when we start to believe they’ll crumble if they fail, we are casting a huge vote of no-confidence in their grit. How will they ever pick up the pieces and learn from mistakes if we’re so desperately holding it all together on their behalf?
For me, this means that even though I attended Harvard, and deeply appreciate the education and the credential, I won’t push my kids to follow in my footsteps.
We should all drop our weapons in the parenting arms race. Instead of trying to sculpt our children into the person we want them to become, let’s stand alongside them and help them discover who they are. As in kindergarten, you get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.
Remember: your child is her own person
Last weekend, my family watched our local high school’s musical revue, an annual tradition for at least a decade. We marveled at the talent of the singers and dancers. I felt a pang that my own children had eschewed the path of dance and musical theater that I had loved as a child. I reminded myself that our children are their own people, and they deserve to be. I know I’ve had a huge influence on them, but ultimately, they are their own creations.
The parents in this week’s brouhaha paid between $200,000 and $6.5 million to guarantee their children’s admissions because they worried their kids couldn’t win entry on their own. We’ve all felt that same fear—and yet we can’t let it drive our decisions.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I worried over every bite I put in my mouth. I read about horrible prenatal complications. I wrote a birth plan and fretted that I hadn’t thought to hire a doula. I felt if I could only hold on until my baby arrived safe and sound, my job as incubator and nutrient provider for this precious bundle would be complete. Finally, on a chilly spring evening, I delivered a healthy baby after an uncomplicated labor.
Holding this bundle, I thought I would breathe a sigh of relief. Instead, a whole new wave of anxiety came over me. I realized that my job wasn’t over. It was just beginning. Now I would need to guard against harmful chemicals, reflux, sharp objects, light sockets, and eventually, mean friends, rabid dogs, drugs, foolish teen decisions; the list went on and on. It seems naïve to say it now, but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized parenthood is truly forever. Our job doesn’t end when the baby is born, or enters kindergarten, or graduates from high school or college. We will be parents forever, dangerously exposed with our hearts walking around outside our bodies.
This notion that there is no finish line can actually be liberating. Because our job is never done, we can relax and pace ourselves for the marathon. Instead of ramping up to crisis mode for each new stage—from preschool admissions to middle school science fairs and preparing the college resume —we have the opportunity to create a durable parenting framework for life. One in which our job is not to impart knowledge or build skills during the first 18 years, but to nurture a strong relationship with our children and help them develop the character traits that will serve them well forever. Instead of trying to protect my kids from all bad things—an impossible task—I want them to be resilient enough to recover from the inevitable upsets life will send their way. That requires them to experience failure.
The "best" isn't always what's best for your kid
When I was in high school, I saw life as a ladder climbing straight to the sky. I saw opportunities available to me as a clear ranking from good, to better, to best. I went to Harvard because that was the best college in the world. After graduation, I took the best-paying, most prestigious job I could find and worked my way up the ranks of journalism to become a national correspondent for a major newspaper chain, Newhouse News Service. Since then, I’ve come to a more nuanced view of success. First of all, Newhouse closed the DC bureau in 2008 and laid me off—along with two dozen colleagues. Instead of accepting another newsroom job, I ventured out on my own as an independent writer. I’ve encountered tougher challenges and been more proud of the work I’ve done as a solo artist than anything I accomplished under nationally known media brand names.
Then, there was our oldest daughter: a straight-A student in high school, first cello of the youth orchestra, with a college application far more impressive than my own. After lengthy discussions with me, my husband, and her mom, she decided to attend the highest ranked college that accepted her, a prestigious small liberal arts college. She was miserable. The kids were far too alternative for her. She wasn’t a hipster. She didn’t do drugs. She just wanted to be a normal student at a typical college, shopping at the Gap. One day before I was set to mail our part of the tuition check for her sophomore year, she called to say she wasn’t going back. Instead, she transferred to a lower ranked but solid university, where she thrived.
That experience hammered home to me that there is no linear ranking of colleges—or jobs, or life experiences—from good to better to best. Each of us has a completely unique set of skills, interests, and temperament. The funny, communicative, high‐energy husband who makes my life complete would drive most of you crazy with his sappiness and ever‐changing brainstorms. If I had stayed in journalism newsrooms, chasing that job at the New York Times, I never would have been able to lead my daughter’s Girl Scout troop, continue singing in my a cappella jazz group, or write a book.
If this is true for adults, it’s even more important for kids. Childhood is a time to explore, not to chase after gold medals in a futile quest to be the best. Even though my daughter is an excellent soccer player, when she’s in a league with 20,000 other children, she simply can’t be the best. So last fall, when her recreational team splintered as players pursued regional clubs and travel teams, we let her drop off the team. This year was her first since kindergarten with no weekend soccer games. Instead, she’s been able to explore other interests—such as staying out late at b’nei mitzvah parties many Saturday nights. It reminds me of when she came home from a Girls on the Run practice with a saying written on her arm in pen: “I know what is right for me.” I can’t think of a better motto as she prepares to enter eighth grade this coming fall and school really ramps up.
It’s important wisdom for me to hold onto as well, when I hear friends talking about their kids’ upcoming performance with the Moscow Ballet, or love of after‐school Latin class, or independent study computer programming course, or acceptance to Phillips Exeter Academy (my alma mater). When we start to compare ourselves to others—or our kids to others’ kids—we risk losing touch with our own internal compass and who they truly are. That’s when we can succumb to the temptation to unwise, unethical or even illegal actions.
All I hope for my children is that they discover for themselves what excites and interests them, where they can make a meaningful contribution to the world, and learn and grow in the process.