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What the Parents in the College Admissions Scandal Were Really Telling Their Kids

"You’re just not smart enough, interesting enough, or a hard enough worker to succeed."

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There are so many terrible things about the college admissions scandal, one hardly knows where to start. As every article states, the lying, cheating, and bribing that were involved ranged from morally repugnant to criminal.

But there’s another dimension that nobody is talking about: These parents thought they were helping their kids. I believe they were actually setting their kids up for failureAfter all, what lessons did the parents teach their kids? 

  • You’re not good enough to do something on your own.
  • If schools knew the real you, they wouldn’t want you.
  • Nothing about you is compelling.
  • No matter how hard you try, it won’t be enough.
  • You’re just not smart enough, interesting enough, or a hard enough worker to succeed.
  • If we don’t help you, you won’t be successful.
  • You don’t have the skill to accomplish something by yourself.
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And please don’t tell me all the kids didn’t know. Maybe in some cases, that’s true, but for others, that could only be true if they didn’t read their college admissions applications…which, of course, they should have written themselves. If they had, they would have listed their extracurricular activities, which would have included their sports, and they would have listed the dates and scores from every time they took the SATs.

The only way they didn’t know is if their parents wrote the application and told them not to read it. And that’s just as bad. And for those who really, truly didn’t know, didn’t the parents think there was a chance they’d find out?

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Instead, the parents should have communicated a different message to their children:

  • You have the skills to accomplish anything you set your mind to.
  • You may not be great in everything, but in the things you love, that you work hard at, that you’re committed to, you’re the best.
  • There will be some schools that don’t want you, where it might not be a great fit, but of course there will be schools that see your talents and want your contribution.
  • You will find a school that sees your true worth and where you will thrive.
  • With your drive, grit, and determination, you will be successful wherever you go to college.

I interviewed 60 successful entrepreneurs and their parents as research for a book. Every one of those parents gave their kids a completely different message from the parents in the admissions scandal. The entrepreneurs I talked to had someone — generally, but not always, a parent — who believed in them. Instead of telling their kids they weren’t good enough on their own, these parents said something like:

“You can achieve anything you put your mind to. We know you’ll be successful. Don’t worry if you make mistakes, because you’ll learn from them on the road to your success. We can’t wait to see everything you’re going to accomplish.”

And these truly supportive parents said that — whether they were rich or poor; well educated or not; Black or white; immigrants or U.S.–born; living in big cities or small towns; parents of a son or daughter; parents of one child or seven.

They didn’t need to cheat to help their child succeed. They had already given their children all the tools their kids needed: a belief in their abilities; a willingness to take risks; an understanding that failure was a way to learn.

All the entrepreneurs I spoke to told me that their parents believed in them and supported their dreams. They all said things like, “My parents always thought I could do anything I worked at enough. I always knew my family was there for me, which gave me the strength to take risks.”

Whether your kids become entrepreneurs or not, knowing that someone believes they can do anything they set their mind to will help them. And knowing that they won’t be judged for inevitable setbacks will give them the courage to dream big dreams. Equipped with this knowledge, they will do better than the kids whose parents had to lie and cheat because they believed their kids weren’t good enough to succeed on their own.

Margot Machol Bisnow is a mom, wife, and author of Raising an Entrepreneur: 10 Rules for Nurturing Risk Takers, Problem Solvers and Change Makers. She spent 20 years working in government, including as an FTC Commissioner and staff director of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and currently advises organizations working to improve education.