My husband and I have often cautioned each other about helicopter parenting in an effort to avoid hovering anxiously over our children. Apparently, however, helicopters have been replaced by snowplows, with some of us parents chugging ahead and clearing any obstacles in our child’s path to success. The latest college admission scandal appears to be an extreme example of parents allegedly going to criminal lengths to shield their children from even the possibility of difficulty, frustration, and potential disappointment.
College coaches paid off and SAT proctors were bribed. Some applicants were actively involved in the charade (taking photos of fake sports participation) while other parents apparently maneuvered behind their child’s back (for example, paying a substitute to take an entrance exam and then pretending to proctor it at home so the student would think his score was legitimate). There’s a lot wrong with this picture, not the least of which is the fact that hard-earning, less financially blessed applicants were denied a spot that they deserved.
I get wanting the best for your child. I also understand the age-old tension between wanting our child to succeed and teaching the values of fairness and equality.
I have at times been surprised (and disappointed) to find myself wrestling with childish feelings of envy or spite during my daughter’s competitive soccer tryouts. I have more than once had to reign myself in when my son’s request for me to look over his class paper started spiraling into a full-blown redo. I know better and I still struggle.
I know I’m not alone. For lots of reasons, parents today seem to have a harder time modeling ethical behavior than they did in previous generations. We live in an age of a shrinking middle class, where guarantees of success are slippery at best. Acceptance rates at selective colleges have plummeted in recent years. All that uncertainty and pressure appears to be eroding our – and our children’s – values.
For example, according to a 2009 Josephson Institute of Ethics survey, over half of people 17 and under believe that to get ahead, you must lie or cheat, compared with under 20 percent of people 25-40. Which means that even though parents believe that ethics are important in theory, the message isn’t getting through to their kids. Social psychologists have found that rich people are more likely than poor people to lie and cheat, and at the same time, they are likelier to believe that social status is a matter of merit.
We do need to protect our kids from some things, like online predators and pedophiles and stalkers. But exposure to normal life stress is essential to our psychological wellbeing. Just as our immune system requires exposure to certain kinds of germs and potential allergens in order to develop its fully capacity, our children need a certain number of hard knocks to develop the psychological skills they need to grow emotionally strong. Without them, our children may be unable to handle the unpleasant but typical life events that all adults eventually face, such as a painful breakup or disappointing job interview.
The college admission process has been humbling for me. Two things have helped me stay as true as possible to my personal values.
One has been a continual attempt to try to separate my own hopes, anxieties, needs and wishes from those of my child. I’ve tried to pay attention to red flags, such as when I’ve been more interested in a college than my high schooler has, or when I’ve encouraged him or her to keep up a no-longer-interested-in sport or activity just so it would look good on an application. I’ve encouraged them to give me feedback when my “help” with the admission process causes more stress for my child or when I seem to be giving them mixed messages.
My second thought has been to try to own my own stuff. Of course, I’d love for her to be the third generation to attend Auburn. But you know what? It’s not going to happen. And when I’ve fallen off the wagon in terms of giving in to irrational feelings about it, I’ve fessed up that it’s my problem and not hers. This has helped me get over myself and hopefully reassured her that – most of the time – I do realize this is her life and not mine.
Snowplow parenting can be hard to break. And don’t get me wrong; in the big bowl of life, it’s better to overflow than die of thirst. I see a lot more prison inmates who got too much neglect or abuse than those who got too much coddling.
But there can be too much of a good thing. We need kids who are strong enough to handle both the mundane and the unexpected curve balls life throws at us, who can make their own decisions, and own their own mistakes.
As child development and behavior specialist said…
“The surest way to make like hard for your child is to make it too easy.”