How VarsityGate Is Changing the Conversation

Tongues are clicking from coast to coast about the college admissions scandal, the pay-to-play scam writ large, burnished with big names from Hollywood and big money from the merely rich, who bought their kids’ way into the colleges of their choice. And the clicks are coming from every social media platform, the experts among the chattering class showing up on every channel, right after the square-jawed prosecutors who indicted the parents as well as their enablers on many campuses from Yale to USC. We are all outraged, horrified, and, sadly, unsurprised.

My phone has been ringing, too, since the relationship between parents and their grown kids is my beat, beginning with the college transition, the first key event in young adulthood, optimally a dynamic, parallel process of growth and change for both generations. So I should have some brilliant insight to offer—or at least, to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, as John Finley Dunne said a newspaper (or in this case, magazine) should do. But for once I have nothing to say except this: if you, a parent, ever thought about doing something like this (presuming you could afford to), Don't. And run, don't walk, away from any college counselor who suggests that he or she could make it happen.

I feel sad for the kids, especially the ones who worked hard, played by the rules, and didn’t get in. But I also feel sorry for the privileged few, sorrier for those who didn’t know that those who did and didn’t care—the colluders, to borrow another sadly familiar word from the social surround. But I'm so mad at their parents I can hardly hold on to the neutral stance even a non-clinical psychologist like me is advised to maintain.

Put on your own oxygen mask first. In other words, take care of yourself or you can't be a fully engaged parent. Parents who deprive themselves of rest, food, and fun for the sake of their kids do no one a favor. "People feel guilty when they work a lot, so they want to give all their free time to their kids," says Fred Stocker, a child psychiatrist at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, in Kentucky. "But you risk getting squeezed dry and emotionally exhausted." A spa weekend may not be realistic, but it's OK to take 15 minutes for a bath after you walk in the door. (A tall request for a kid, yes, but a happier Uno player goes a long way.) Running ragged between activities? Ask your child to prioritize, says Taylor. She may be dying for you to chaperone a field trip but ambivalent about your missing a swim meet—the ideal amount of time for a pedicure.

What in the world did the so-called grownups think they were doing and for whom? Did they think that rigging the game would really advance their kids’ interests and improve their futures, or did their own narcissism get so out of control that they ignored the terrible lesson their schemes would teach them? Had they no idea that their children will never trust themselves to try something they might fail at—like real life? Or that by buying their kids' way into college they were probably also making a down payment on their future therapy?

The natural desire to ease our kids’ journey through life—to make them happy—is what many people, not just the wealthy and well-connected, mistake for good parenting. Wanting to help them succeed is so much easier than letting them fail and loving them anyway. Truly narcissistic parents can’t do this, because they see their children as extensions of themselves, rather than as who they actually are. They take credit for their successes and do everything possible to cushion them against failure.

There are many aspects of this story that will engage attention in the culture, on campuses and off, among parents and kids, and of course, the pundits in the public square. The parallels to the moral decay of the present administration will also be decried. And perhaps it won't go without notice in the mental health community, included but not limited to high-ticket treatment centers for some of the young adults involved, who will undoubtedly get the best therapy money can buy.

"We spend the first 12 months of our children’s lives teaching them to walk and talk, and the next 12 years telling them to sit down and shut up."- Phyllis Diller

To the rest of both generations, those not directly involved in Varsitygate but waiting for the college acceptance letters to arrive next month, don’t let the stupidity, chicanery, and criminality of a small number of people and a very few institutions spoil your college experience.