We Know What the College Admissions Scandal Says About Aunt Becky... But What Does it Say About Us?

Well look at how smug we are. Nothing inspires schadenfreude like rich celebrities getting their comeuppance. This essay isn’t meant to detract in any way from the heinous allegations in the college admissions scandal. Our system has been exposed as beyond broken and the hypocrisy of critics of Affirmative Action is more glaring than ever. I also don’t want to compare the downright ridiculous and illegal lengths these parents went to, to get their kids into the right schools to the general overparenting we’re all mostly guilty of.

But what keeps coming up for me is that there is something in this whole mess that feels uncomfortably familiar. That obsessive desperation these accused celebrities have with their children’s “success” is a generational norm at this point. I’m looking at you, upper middle class white America.

We—present company included—have become enmeshed in our kids’ futures in such an unhealthy way. Much has already been written about what kind of messaging this behavior sends to kids. That their parents think they will absolutely fail without their intervention. Let’s be clear, children ingest our truths. They are so in tune to how we feel, that our intentions and opinions come through much earlier and louder than whatever it is we say to their faces. If you think your kid is incapable, and your money and connections are their only hope, an international scandal isn’t necessary to expose that. They got the memo long ago. 

But what has really been weighing on me is the other message. The one that says: You must succeed and you must succeed on my terms. That’s the only option. These parents, and many, many like them essentially think if left to their own devices—whether their kids work so incredibly hard but can’t quite manage to get good enough scores, or if they don’t bother to work hard at all—the outcome will be positively catastrophic. There will be no way these kids will ever recover from going to a sub-par college or (gulp) not going to college at all. So, they justify these massive interventions lest their children’s entire lives be blown by 17, or earlier depending on where you live. Here in New York City parents have been known to bribe their way into Pre-K programs.

How did this happen? Remember how we were raised? Playing outside all day unsupervised with no sunscreen. Good times. But looking back I see with clarity that the best thing about my generation’s childhood was how we were allowed to fail.... and Fail. We. Did. We lost games, competitions, got cut from teams, watched our friends surpass us, we got picked last or not at all. Other kids had things we didn’t. Our parents didn’t flinch. They might not have even noticed! Because this was such a normal part of our lives. But somehow it doesn’t feel normal anymore. 

By now we’re all familiar with the term helicopter parenting but I was recently introduced to the idea of the lawnmower parent. Someone who mows down the obstacles in front of their child, swatting away anything inconvenient so their precious offspring can walk through a perfectly manicured life. Ouch. 

My oldest child recently worked really hard for something she wanted and it didn’t go her way. She was heartbroken and truth be told, so was I. When I think back on the months of preparation I am truly embarrassed by how obsessed I became in the process. It was unhealthy for me and it was sure as hell unhealthy for her. After we got the news, the best thing someone said to me was, “There might have been great value in having the experience she wanted, but I promise you there is more value in learning this lesson at 13: That sometimes you work so hard, you do everything right and you just don’t get what you want.” The growth and resilience my daughter has shown since then has been incredible. 

I think there is a reason the Operation Varsity Blues scandal is hitting such a nerve. Yes, it’s uncovering what most of us already know, that the game is rigged. Privilege and wealth play an even bigger part in what is supposed to be a great American meritocracy than we thought. But I think for a lot of parents of teenagers today, it’s triggering because while we’re not photoshopping our kids’ faces onto other athletes’ bodies (!!) —we are overly invested in where they go to school, what teams they are on and how talented they are. We have to face the fact that the waters between their success and ours have gotten muddied. America is so fascinated by this ridiculous situation not because it’s so shocking but because it’s really not shocking at all. 

Complaining about millennials has become a national pastime. They quit their jobs when they become inconvenient, they are entitled and have no work ethic. How did an entire generation get that way? Maybe because we are so scared that our children are going to “fail” that with the best of intentions, we’ve co-created their actual inability to succeed.

I know this kind of parenting is born of luxury. The luxury of both time and money and there are millions of parents struggling to feed their children much less worry about their far-off college education. But some of us need to take this extreme example as a wake-up call. We need to step back. Way, way back and let our children grow into who they want to be. If I’m being honest, giving up control is not my strong suit, but I’m going to try and I hope for the sake of our children you will too.