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The College Admissions Scandal Shows the Dangers of ‘Drone’ Parenting

Such parents seek and destroy any obstacle in their kids lives. It's not doing them any favors.

The college admissions scandal made clear the extent to which certain parents will go to cement status for their kids. The affluent parents involved dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars, hired fraudulent SAT exam proctors, and even photoshopped their kids’ faces onto athlete’s bodies to get them into exclusive schools as recruits. It wasn’t news that the wealthy can access different routes. But when the 50 parents, SAT proctors, and college athletic officials involved were arrested and the details became clear, millions were shocked at what those backdoors looked like.

Richard Watts wasn’t. A lawyer to some of the countries richest families for nearly four decades, Watts has had a front row seat to the country’s most affluent and is well versed in the very hands on, hyper-intensive parenting on display. In his book, Entitlemania Watts argues that over-involved parenting has set up America’s young adults to be unprepared for conflict and shoved down paths that they’re not sure they want to take. Fatherly spoke to Watts about hyper-intensive parenting, the ‘academic cult’ in which so many parents are involved, and how the idea of success gets corrupted by parents.

Why did you want to write Entitlemania?

I wrote it as a follow-up to my previous book Fables of Fortune: What Rich People Have that You Don’t Want. One of the chapters was called, “Children of Entitlement.” The book was really geared to teach people that having wealth as a giant dream is probably not worth the effort it would take you to get it. And because you probably won’t get that wealth, it’s probably not worth making your world crazy for your whole life while you try to get rich, thinking it’s a better life.

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For 37 years as a lawyer, I’ve represented nothing but families that are literally worth hundreds of millions of dollars up to a billion dollars. I can tell you, their life is convoluted with more complications and misery than you could ever imagine. Out of that theory came Children of Entitlement, where I wrote about what happens to the children of wealthy people. But then I realized that two different things were really happening that were harming kids.

What were they?

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One is what rich parents were doing, which was giving too much. Being materialistic, giving their kids anything they wanted: motorbikes, fancy cars. Those parents didn’t realize that was killing their kid’s incentive. If kids have nothing in their world that motivates them, it’s very difficult to get motivated and become a whole person with self-value. Parents were interrupting that process.

The other was a little more interesting. It appeared to me that parents were taking the struggle of all of their kids’ lives. People were seeing where their kids were encountering difficulty, and they were saying, ‘Oh my gosh. That’s so painful.` The parents decided to take the struggle away from them.

So they were snow-plow parents: removing obstacles and difficulties from their kids life to ensure success.

This was really germane to everybody raising kids. It wasn’t about a poor person or a rich person. It was about parents’ desire — this incredible, loving desire — to want to have their kids succeed. And what they didn’t realize is that, as part of that process, in taking away the struggle, they were causing their kids to not really begin to understand the process of setback and moving forward. To be compressed by life, because of difficulties. To figure out an answer and then moving forward. Parents began to interrupt that really important process that teaches them what they like and don’t like.

Do you have any specific examples?

Kids begin this process of discernment, which is just so incredibly important to the development of self-worth. Let’s say you meet someone who serves donuts. Those are jobs people don’t value. But you meet people behind those counters who are so interesting and passionate about their life. Maybe the guy in the donut shop loves fishing a lot. And you look at them and think: “Wow. It almost seems like you shouldn’t like life that much, because you’re just a donut peddler.” A lot of people, in the process of discernment, wind up discovering, through difficulty, a place that makes them feel okay. They learn about themselves. They find what they like and don’t like.

That’s the basis of Entitlemania. Those two functions are recurring at different income levels, giving too much, and taking away struggle. It is completely defying what life is trying to do for you: to raise you up into someone that’s strong, resilient, and able to tackle difficulties.

Right. There’s a lot of research that parents need to pull back on intervening for their kids all the time. Letting them struggle — but stepping in when they need it — helps kids learn how to work hard. It also gives them a sense of positive self-esteem.

We all start with this great intention to love our kids. But somewhere in the process, that love gets hijacked. Parents begin to forget that they are supposed to be someone who helps kids encounter the difficulties of life, and be there for them through that. Instead, parents wind up getting very kid-centric: ‘This is my daughter. I so badly want to be in her life, and I want to be her friend, and I want to get along and do fun things together.’

Being friends with your kids comes way after you sit down with yourself as a parent and say: “If I don’t allow my kid access to the struggles of life, and I am a drone parent, that would be like sending a gymnast who has never trained and starting them out on the high bar. They are going to break their neck.”

Someone has to be there to spot the child while they are tackling life’s gymnastics, and not expect them, some day in their maturity, to just go out and do a round-off back-handspring backflip. It’s absurd.

You use the term “drone parent” a lot in your book. What’s your definition?

A drone parent of today is a strategic parent who is all-seeing. They’re very stealth. You don’t know where they are, but they are constantly monitoring everything going on in their kids lives so they can ‘advance the mission.’ The mission, to them, is ‘success.’ The unfortunate part is that we often don’t know drones are around. You didn’t even know these movie star parents involved in the scandal were doing these activities. Some of the kids didn’t even know it.

To use your example of the fulfilled donut peddler, who has hobbies, interests, and is employed. Did you bring that example up because you think parents are too focused on the most elite colleges, like those who committed felonies to get their kids into USC?

Parents have become almost involved in an academic cult. They have this belief that there is a promised land. They are all in the water, and the kids have all got to swim to the beach, and there’s this riptide coming against them. The one thing you don’t want to do is swim against the rip tide, but parents are telling their kids to swim against it. All these kids are beating themselves up. They’ve all drank the kool-aid, because mom and dad have made them do it. They’re working their way towards this beach, which is an Ivy League.

It’s all just contrived by mom and dad. who say: this is your only way to success. What everybody knows about a riptide is that all you need to do is stop paddling. The water takes you out away from the beach and then it usually washes you down the coast, a few hundred yards, and then you find that there are other ways to get to the same beach without wrecking yourself in the process.

Basically, you’re saying that there are other schools.

You don’t have to go Ivy League. You don’t have to follow that. I was just on Fox a week ago on a panel, and there was an educator there that said that 90 percent of the kids are focused on 10 percent of the schools. She said: “It’s just so absurd to think that if you graduate from a university in Utah or Colorado or Iowa, that somehow, you are going to have an unhappy life.”

That’s the problem. Parents of today have been focused on their kid’s success, rather than asking themselves: “How can I help my child grow to be content and happy someday?”

But everyone is focused on this success thing. And what I find is that, sure, they are going through college, but they don’t start discovering who they are until they really start to buffet some of the wind out there.