Take a drive around any upper-middle class enclave in America, and within minutes you will spot a station wagon or three adorned with collegiate logos. These cars belong by and large not to college students but to their parents. It is the grown-up version of the age-old “My Child Is an Honor Student at _______ Elementary School” bumper sticker.
You can hardly blame mom and dad for expressing a little pride. They are certainly paying enough for the privilege. And the stickers serve a convenient double purpose, signaling parental virtue to the surrounding traffic: I am a good parent (and person) because my child goes to Brown. Thus the gag response sticker: “Your Kid’s an Honor Student — But You’re a Moron.”
Windshield school stickers have taken on a sinister aspect in the wake of the college admissions scandal that has dominated our headlines these past couple weeks. It turns out that, for some, those stickers and the status they represent are worth risking prison for.
When parents resort to criminal means to secure their child a spot at a top university, no doubt they believe they are acting in the child’s best interest. They worry, as do all parents, about their kid’s future, and they know a prestigious answer to the “Where did you go to school?” question guarantees, rightly or wrongly, a lifetime of opportunity and respect for their child.
But outsized fears about our kids’ prospects may be a smokescreen for a deeper concern. Speaking as a parent myself, we are equally if not more anxious about how we stack up. Mom and dad are on trial just as much their son or daughter.
Indeed, to more and more of us, the college admissions process represents the ultimate measure of personal and social value, or what some would call (upper-) middle-class righteousness. An acceptance letter to the right college constitutes a judgment of near-religious significance.
Perhaps that sounds like hyperbole. A friend once told me if you are having trouble understanding fanatical behavior, trace the righteousness in play, and things will become clear. This helps explain why someone might commit felonies to circumvent a university’s front door. Actions like these reflect a society in which success, not goodness, has become our highest virtue. Maybe it always has been.
Whatever the case, security and respect are not the only things at stake here. Identity and worth, even functional salvation, are involved for child and parent alike. The anxiety is existential.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor predicted that the further we retreat from a shared religion, the more contenders would emerge to harness our spiritual energy. He called this “the nova effect,” likening it to an explosion of religious pluralism. Perhaps it is time to add parenting to the growing list of “replacement religions” competing for our attention and currency these days, a list that already includes workism and politics.
If parenting is a religion, then admissions officers serve as de facto priests, doling out blessings or curses in response to the sacrifices offered them in accordance with Almighty Standards of Performance. The words engraved on their stone tablet read “Thou Shalt Excel — Effortlessly Yet Also (Somehow) With a Degree of Humility.” Or else.
In this context, the righteous parent does everything in her power to ensure her child “gets further” than she did on the socioeconomic ladder — or at minimum that they do not demote the family somehow. Call it the doctrine of filial advancement. It is a short leap from thinking about our children as our “legacy” to conceiving of them as our pathway to, well, eternal life.
Parenting as redemption casts the child in the role of savior. They cease to be a person in their own right and become our second chance to get into the school that rejected us, to follow the dream we did not have the guts to stick with, to enjoy the childhood or adolescence we were denied, or to leverage the physical prowess or beauty we squandered.
What is required in the religion of parenting is nothing short of the objectification of one’s progeny. Experience shows that kids who have been objectified rarely fail to make their feelings known. They may do so with words. They may do so with their wardrobe. They may do so by moving across the country.
Then again, “religion” might be too strong a word. There is, after all, nothing supernatural involved. These days, instead of looking to religion for meaning, purpose, salvation, even immortality, we rely instead on secular proxies — not only for parenting, but for career, romance, fitness, food, technology, politics. How should we describe this cultural phenomenon? I suggest the catchall “seculosity,” a combination of “secular” and “religiosity.”
Unfortunately, these expressions of seculosity maintain all the demand of old-fashioned religion — and much of the ritual! — but none of the mercy. That someone might crack up under the pressure and make some truly bad decisions is a foregone conclusion. The real surprise is that it does not happen more often.
Good thing, then, that some religions still welcome rejects, failures, hypocrites and their parents. At least, that is what I read on a bumper sticker somewhere.
David Zahl is the author of “Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It” (Fortress Press, April 2, 2019) and the founder and editor of the popular Mockingbird website.