Is it Ethical to Talk About Getting Our Kids into Good Schools?
When I heard about the celebrity college admissions scandal, a memory surfaced: I was 17 years old, living in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, where I attended an elite public magnet school. I had high SAT scores and good grades. And I am white. So when I submitted my application to Cornell, I expected to get in. But the letter that arrived from Cornell (the first of the letters) carried bad news. Sitting in the kitchen with my mother, I crumbled. I would never get into college. Worse, a friend of mine—a Mexican-American student—had been accepted. It felt like salt in the wound. "She only got in because of affirmative action," I cried.
My mother could have nodded her head in sympathy and told me I was right to feel wronged. She could have intervened to help me, maybe even gotten on the phone with someone who knew someone in Cornell admissions. Instead, she looked me in the eye and said firmly and with love: “One heartbreak is not the end of the world.” And then she called me out for my ignorant words about my classmate. We had no idea about the strength of her application. And as a white kid, I would have many advantages in life, she explained—in fact, my path to the Cornell application had already been paved with privilege. It was a critical, early lesson in how unconscious and pervasive white supremacy can be.
It wasn't until I became a parent myself that I understood just how powerful my mom's response that day was. She had resisted a mighty force, the one I readily recognized as I read about Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin: the impulse of a mother to do whatever it takes to help her children.
Most of us would never go to the lengths these celebrities did to get our kids into an exceptional university. But we might advocate for our kindergartner to go to the best school in the city, hire a private SAT tutor for our high school junior, or any number of other steps to get our kids to the front of the line.
What's wrong with that? We want the best for our kids. The problem is that often when we advocate for our children, when we work to ensure that they have access to "the best"—the best schools, the best teachers, the best coaches—we are unconsciously reinforcing systems of oppression. And in many cases, we actually end up eroding their self-worth.
We're living in a white-dominant culture that is increasingly narcissistic. The result is that many of us, even those with immense privilege, walk around with a nagging sense that we aren't good enough. We are deathly afraid of being ordinary. And we don't want our kids to be ordinary. In turn, we work hard to get them into elite schools. We sign them up for internships in Nicaragua. We pay for private soccer coaches. And that impulse may get even stronger the more wealth and privilege we have. Whatever it takes to give our kids "the best." This has the effect of quietly embedding in our children a sense that they must be exceptional or risk being unloved. Often called, "snowplow parenting," researchers say that while the children of this parenting style end up having access to more job opportunities (after all, they're more privileged), they also end up more likely to develop depression and anxiety later on.
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And we also end up hurting children of color. When we tell our white kids (especially sons) overtly or through our actions that they deserve the best, we feed white supremacy and patriarchy in the process—even as we put up Black Lives Matter signs at our homes. We send them to private schools, which further segregate our children, and leave public schools with fewer resources. We get them internships within our social circles, which allow them to skip many rungs on the career ladder, widening already gaping inequities in wealth. We steal their early experiences of loss, failure, or chance by reinforcing a false sense of victimhood when they don't get the lead role, winning goal, or college acceptance letter. While white supremacy and patriarchy are systemic, the culture that keeps these systems in place is learned—and with each of these actions, we teach our children that they deserve to be on top and can almost always get there.
Sociologist Robin DiAngelo has argued that white progressives are the ones to cause the most daily damage to people of color because we refuse to accept our own bias. Her research also shows that the biggest barrier to white people showing up for people of color is a fear of being called racist. This makes me think of the quote by novelist James Baldwin: "People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of ignorance long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster."
We can become the monster, like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, or we can draw on our courage and show up for a change. As parents of white children, every single day presents us with an opportunity to chip away at oppression.
Before we submit to that instinct to jump in and advocate for our children's privileges—especially when it comes to what school they go to—we can ask ourselves three questions:
- Does my child have a right to this (school, scholarship, job)? Ask yourself if they are more deserving than other children.
- Is getting this opportunity essential to my child's well-being? My job as a parent is to protect my child's safety, to help them find joy and self-actualization through the ups and downs of life. That doesn't mean making sure they get what they want—or worse yet, get what I want for them.
- If I advocate for my kid, what are the long-term consequences? Question what signal you are sending to the school, the employer, the other parents, and most importantly, your own child. And question if your "advocacy" is preserving a supremacy of white kids (and male kids) over everyone else.
This isn't an easy road. Allowing your child to experience disappointment, discomfort, and the range of emotions that accompany failure or loss can seem unkind. But the opposite is true. Instead of pursuing the best for our child, we can see the best in them. That shift can nurture their personal dignity, to help them understand that they are worthy and good because they are human, not because they get a 4.0 or go to an Ivy League.
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When they have that kind of confidence, a single mistake or missed opportunity won't unravel their sense of self or provoke a false sense of superiority over another person. Our attention to their innate value as a human may even teach them about our shared humanity—the most powerful antidote to white supremacy and patriarchy.
My mom was right, of course. My heartbreak over Cornell wasn't the end of my life. In some ways, it was the beginning. Because of the way she held the bigger picture for me that day, I began to understand that I was not just strong enough to survive that setback, but that I had a deep-rooted obligation to identify and call out the forces of injustice at work, especially in my own heart. I can only hope I do the same for my own children.
Sarah Shanley Hope is an activist, mom, and the founding executive director of the Solutions Project, a national organization with a vision of 100 percent clean energy for 100 percent of people. She has more than 15 years of experience at the intersection of brand strategy and social change, working in leadership roles at Alliance for Climate Education, Green For All, Cargill and, Best Buy. She currently lives in Oakland, California with lives with her husband and two daughters.