Group of teenagers wearing backpacks walk down a school hallway.
It sounds like an episode of Law and Order . Wealthy Hollywood stars, corporate executives, and prominent doctors bribe college coaches, admissions officers, and even an adult SAT taker to cheat the college admissions system and ensure their children gain entry into elite schools. The U.S Department of Justice accused fifty people in six states in a racketeering investigation the feds dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues.”
The issue has forced an acknowledgment that college admissions is another symptom of an unjust society. A blatant example of how institutions and systems may favor wealth and privilege over effort and intellectual curiosity.
There’s another common thread I’ve heard in the discussion of the college admissions scandal. Parents whose children are on a pre-college path feel disgusted by this incident, but not entirely surprised. Instead, “Operation Varsity Blues” seems like the logical byproduct of an extreme parenting culture.
If you’re watching the scandal unfold with varying degrees of horror and an unfortunate understanding why these parents would go so far to get their children into the right college, take positive action in your parenting and help your children build resilience. It comes down to this: as parents, we know in our hearts that everything should not come easily for our kids, and that it is wrong to deprive our children of the ability to forge their own paths. We know that we cannot solve every problem for our kids and that if we do, we prevent them from developing resilience.
Trust your mommy gut. No one knows your child better than you. Follow your instincts when it comes to his health and well-being. If you think something's wrong, chances are you're right.
It can seem as if the only way our kids can compete in a high-stakes, often cut-throat world is to give them every advantage possible. Many parents are using every ounce of spare cash to give their children the “best.” They feel the need to pay for private coaching before their kids try out for a sports team. Or invest in an expensive test tutor outside of school. Or worse, they go to the extremes of gaming the system.
As a pediatrician working with adolescents and their parents for more than thirty years, my days are often spent looking to build on the strengths of children by fostering their resilience. I work to enable families to help children become stronger and able to bounce back when things don’t turn out as expected. I care deeply about success and launching kids into adulthood. But in order to do this, parents and children must work to foster integrity, honesty, ethical standards, and self-awareness.
From the perspective of parents, the stakes in their kids’ educational achievement have risen enormously – in a world were only college can provide a safe path to an economically secure and happy existence, parents have every reason to be concerned and to redouble their effort to help their children succeed.
Don’t get me wrong: fostering these values is hard work and requires consistent, conscious effort. They require us to check in with ourselves and our children. But it is possible. Here are a few ways to get started.
Help Them Build Resilience by Letting Them Fail
Of course, we all want our children to succeed. We want them to be happy. When they aren’t, we often feel it is a reflection on our parenting. But there are times when children must take risks in order to learn. And this may include failure. And that’s ok. It’s actually a chance for growth. So, set aside the uncomfortable feelings their missteps may bring. Don’t do your children’s homework. Leave that assignment they forgot on the table. Let them choose hobbies based on interest, not on what will boost their resumes. Trust they’ll rebound after mistakes. It’ll build their resilience. And be there for them as they learn to get back on their feet.
Set up a "gratitude circle" every night at dinner. Go around the table and take turns talking about the various people who were generous and kind to each of you that day. It may sound corny, but it makes everyone feel good.
Help Them Understand That Life is Not Always Fair
Your young child might complain that life isn’t fair when she gets a smaller piece of birthday cake than her sibling. But older kids need to understand how entrenched systems of privilege, racial discrimination, class, and money influence their own lives and those of the family. Children born into privilege must be taught to understand why they may be the beneficiaries of unearned access. Children born into legacy families do sometimes receive preferential treatment in college admissions. If your family is denied access to benefits enjoyed by the privileged, then be prepared to have a frank talk about this, too.
The key is understanding your own family’s system of values and how it intersects with the values of society and the dominant systems that make it run, from the College Admissions Process to structural biases. You can help your children apply that framework to unjust situations. And when unfair things happen, remind your child that what they encountered is wrong, and challenge them to come up with solutions that will change or fix things in the future. Urge them to focus their energy on those things they can control and encourage them to look at their own unique strengths.
Make warm memories. Your children will probably not remember anything that you say to them, but they will recall the family rituals - like bedtimes and game night - that you do together.
Be a Lighthouse, Not a Helicopter
“Lighthouse Parenting” involves steering children towards a positive, fulfilled future, while also keeping them safe. Contrary to helicoptering, lighthouse parents are stable forces allowing their children to safely navigate the waves and steer clear of the rocks. They love their children unconditionally, just the way they are, not based on performances or grades. They know their children may not always succeed, and if and when they do fail, they trust in their ability to recover. And they will recover. Because these children know they are part of a loving, supportive family who will be there to help them do so.
One of the saddest results of this situation is the lasting impact on the young people involved. These parents’ actions send a clear message to their children -- that they are not good enough. How will they ever find out if they are good enough to do the things they want to do in life? Without trying and failing, facing injustices head-on, and testing the waters to figure out who they are as individuals, it will be impossible for them to discover what their unique contribution to the world will be. Parents must be the guides, helping to build resilience -- as their children learn to navigate their own adolescent journeys.