It’s appalling. It’s infuriating. It’s gasp-inducing.
But is it shocking?
After details emerged about wealthy parents allegedly paying thousands of dollars to cheat their kids onto the “in” list at big-name schools, Colleen Paparella Ganjian, founder of DC College Counseling and an independent educational consultant in Northern Virginia, was left feeling upset but not surprised. “College admissions is the first time that they aren’t able to give the child something they want. As a parent myself, I get it,” she said. “When parents are faced for the first time with the idea that they can’t step in and make it better after 18 years of doing that, that’s really scary, and probably more scary for the parent than for the child.”
That may even be a more generous assessment than others would give the recent news about the most egregious parental helicoptering in recent memory. Overparenting — though perhaps not always the illegal kind — is pervasive, and becoming more so from earlier ages. “My oldest is 7. I see this in Fairfax County, where they take these tests to get into [advanced academic] programs," Paparella Ganjian said. "Parents are doing test prep for their 6-year-olds. I start to think, ‘Gosh, should I have done this?’ ”
We have gotten to the point in today’s fast-paced, hyper-competitive society where parents of privilege are hiring multiple tutors for kids already on the honor roll. Parents write college essays, or hire someone else to do it. They’re overscheduling kids with extracurriculars that play to college admissions instead of their children’s actual interests. It sounds like overkill, and yet everyone else is doing it. “So why not me?” they think.
The reason: Our kids will grow up to be adults who don’t know how to do simple adult things. “We had to learn things at young ages, like how to speak to an adult on the phone,” said Catherine Lowry Franssen, a psychology professor at Longwood University. “Now, I have college students who don’t know how to make a phone call.”
Research shows, she said, that kids who are overparented are not good decision-makers, not able to fight their own battles. Simply put, she said, when they are turned out into the world, “they don’t know how to do the things.”
“This is the extreme, but that pressure is happening all over the place,” said Jessica Lahey, author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed."
Recently, Lahey was speaking to a large crowd of parents of children who go to an elite private school in New York City. A woman raised her hand after Lahey explained why we need to let our kids fail (spoiler alert: so they can learn from their mistakes). The parent said: “But if my kid leaves a project until the last minute, it’s going to be embarrassing for my child if we don’t help.” Lahey then told her a story about her own son having to defend a project he threw together the night before. Let’s just say he learned his lesson.
The fact is, there are just a handful of super-elite colleges. The pressure to get into them is intense and getting worse. But there are almost 3,000 other accredited colleges in this country. “You are not where you go,” Lahey said. She promised her child she wouldn’t put a sticker advertising his college on the back of her car. Why? “That is not my accomplishment to show off in the parking lot. It’s a personal decision about where he wants to go, what he wants to learn and how he wants to learn it.”
Going to college represents “a really important, significant step toward psychological separation from one’s parent,” noted Elisabeth Lamotte, founder of the DC Counseling & Psychotherapy Center. “It’s an important psychological time, and when there’s a hyper-focus on trying to get 20 more points on the SAT, we miss the opportunity to be focusing on what it means to be in that chapter with our children.”
But, sadly, that’s what many parents are doing, says Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer in education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
“It just a level of micromanaging going on,” he said. “I think it’s sending this depressing message that they can’t handle the process themselves.”
So what can parents do?
Ask your child, “Am I over-involved? Is it helpful or harmful to you? How would you like me to be involved?” Weissbourd advises. And remember: Getting your child into the wrong college or signed up for extracurriculars that don’t interest him is misrepresenting who your child is. He will end up in a life he didn’t want.
“I’m hearing from admissions officers that students are getting to campus and not able to cope,” said Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling and outreach at the Derryfield School in Manchester, N.H. “Mental-health services are exploding on campus. In a lot of ways, that is because parents all of a sudden aren’t there to micromanage.”
There’s also an implicit message students receive from their parents, he said. They learn that they can and should game the system, that it’s okay to step on other people to get to where they want to be. (Think of the qualified students who didn’t get these slots because their parents didn’t cheat or pay big bucks to get them in.) After all, that’s what their parents are doing on their behalf. "I think even though the messages are not overt, a lot of times they’re getting these messages from their parents through their actions,” Barnard said.
“There is a degree of involvement when you contrast today with the 1970s, which is when a lot of the parents with kids going to college now grew up,” said Lamotte. “And there seems to be some research that says some of that is helpful. However, I think there’s a real risk of it crossing a line and it becoming paralyzing and stifling.”
It’s not going to happen overnight, but experts say parents need to stop all the hovering, doing everything for their kids. What they need to do instead is to allow them to fail so they can learn how to succeed. Parents need to acknowledge that life is more pressure-filled for kids today. “The best way parents can help their kids is to give them the tools to do things themselves," said Paparella Ganjian, the educational consultant.
“To be a good parent, we have to say, ‘Let me coach you through it, and you can then do it yourself,’” Franssen said.
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