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The Real Cause of the College Admissions Scam? Snowplow Parenting.

Unearned plaudits are the new silver spoon. And it's going to wind up hurting these rich kids.

There are plenty of reasons a parent might feel compelled to game the system in order to get their kid into college. None of them particularly great. Love is not, in this context, a particularly acceptable excuse. Sure, the so-called “snowplow parents” clearing the way for their kids in the college admission scandal were acting out of care and concern. But when those things are expressed through fraud, something has gone awry. Did they love their kids to a fault? No. They loved their kids and had a fault: the way they expressed it.

The behavior of parents who insist on clearing a path to success for kids is often damaging to those same children. Children need to fail or succeed independently in order to attain real personal success. It is an act of selfishness to hoard agency and it leaves children helpless in the face of reality. And that’s not a statement of moral principle. Research strongly indicates that this is fact.

Erika Christakis, the New York Times bestselling author of The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need From Grownups, has observed firsthand as an early childhood educator how kids develop the skills they need to succeed and how adults and parents help or hinder them based on a complex set of social and emotional drivers. She says there’s more hindering going on than the helpers might expect. Fatherly spoke with Christakis about cheating parents and how to let kids fail while mitigating long-term risk.

Why do you think parents feel so compelled to clear paths for their children, particularly when it comes to academics?

We evolved to be fiercely protective of our children, which was perhaps more helpful when we were trying to fight off Mastodons and keep our toddlers from tumbling off a cliff. Now, our understanding of childhood risk factors requires more subtlety. Protecting our children in the modern era may actually require us to let them tolerate some discomfort and pain in order to build resilience. The ancient, hardwired impulse to sweep away obstacles may need some modulation.

Surely it is also — on a not totally evolutionary level — an expression of love.

I wouldn’t underestimate the motivating power of love! That said, I think we see clear evidence that certain types of communities have particular anxieties which are connected, perhaps indirectly, to status-seeking. Sometimes our pursuit of status can be couched in language about giving our children the best opportunities in life. It’s hard sometimes to tease out the motivations and I wouldn’t want to speak to anyone’s parenting impulses, but this is likely about more than just love.

The parents implicated in the college admissions scandal were wealthy. Is this a rich kid issue? Is the silver snowplow the new silver spoon?

The example of the rich parents bribing coaches and admissions staff does feel like an extreme version of new patterns of parenting we’ve seen emerging in recent years among relatively privileged families. I’m talking about the resistance to letting children struggle and the intrusion of adults into young people’s lives and everyday business.

So, you’re saying that these parents were seeking a social status that they couldn’t buy directly or felt they didn’t have despite being, in some cases at least, movie stars?

I assume the parents who crossed these — to my eyes -— uncrossable boundaries must have been deriving a lot of social affirmation from this intense style of parenting which seems to me, as an observer, to be rooted in a very un-child centered view of the young person. I’m sure the parents would be shocked to hear that they were perpetrating an act of cruelty on their children. But that’s certainly how it felt to me to hear of parents conveying the message to their teenager: ‘Your worth is so inextricably tied up in an external affirmation that we are going to lie and cheat in order for you to be acceptable to our family.’

It is pretty wild when you put it that way. Makes you wonder about the milieu.

I’m guessing the path from relative normalcy to this outcome must have been paved with peer norms or encouragement. Even if these parents didn’t talk about the specifics of their illegal college admissions process with others, they surely were part of a social network of people who were anxious about and focused on markers of success like college acceptance letters. The system does indeed make families anxious and may provide the extra nudge for people who crossed the line into criminal or very sleazy behavior. Yet they embraced this somehow, which can’t be brushed away with a simple phrase like “peer pressure.”

Considering the education system is so competitive, what options do parents really have to make sure their kids can achieve?

Parents need to restore some sanity to their lives and understand that the name on a diploma has relatively little to do with people’s ultimate success in life. I would personally define success quite broadly. But even on the narrow axis of financial and career achievement, what matters far more than the name of the college is the disposition and performance of the student who is at that institution. People have actually studied this and it’s really true. When we control for the dispositions and achievements of students, they can and do manage well almost anywhere.

So some kids would be fine without college because of their disposition?

Somehow we have lost faith in childhood and our children. We are mistaking certain waypoints on a life’s journey — such as college admissions — for the destination. They are just stepping stones that can be swapped out pretty easily with other stepping stones. Some people make good use of college and others don’t. We all learn through experience and some adversity. Life is, for most young people, long and full of opportunity for growth and renewal. I know I sound platitudinous but I really believe that the best gift we can give our children is permission to develop at their own pace. This requires faith and a long view of human development.

But what about all the fancy stuff you need to put on your college application?

By the way, sell that story to the highest bidder. But most 17-year-olds shouldn’t have to create an appealing autobiography. It’s ridiculous. Their job is to be in the world, observing and learning and getting to know themselves while, hopefully, being kind to others. The marketing approach to college admissions is not doing kids any favors.

When kids are not given the opportunity to try and fail on their own, what are the outcomes later in their life?

I think we have a lot of evidence that small doses of stress — I’m not talking trauma or major stress but, rather, the everyday challenges, such as coping with failing a math quiz or learning how to walk to school — can actually build resilience. That’s an overused word but I’m talking about the ability to learn from challenges. These missteps can be tremendously empowering and yet, children are being inculcated with the message that making a mistake is a problem. We also grossly misjudge risk with our children, so we often prevent them from doing relatively reasonable and safe activities (while possibly ignoring other risks, for example to our children’s mental health).

Are there better ways than, say, doing a child’s homework for them or bribing school officials, for parents to ensure that their kids succeed in the future?

Relationships matter the most for all kinds of outcomes: language development in the early years, school success, mental wellbeing. Invest time in your child, just having a good time together. Listen to your child’s concerns and needs. It sounds simplistic but in some ways, it really is. Parents can build a relationship with their child from the early years through observation, empathy, and expressing curiosity about how their children think and feel. In fact, expressing this kind of empathic curiosity is much healthier than pushing programs and prizes on kids or simply offering cheap reassurance when they are upset. Learning to say (and feel): ‘I am really interested in you; I want to learn about you.’ That is both an easy and challenging thing for parents to do!

How do parents become more mindful about their urge to clear obstacles for their children?

Often we forget our own childhood experiences with shame, fear, anxiety. It’s helpful to try to get into the mindset of a young child. Often we don’t need to “fix” things or clear obstacles. We just have to listen. Think back to the adults who were supportive in your life as a young person. They probably weren’t snow-plowing away problems but they were likely really engaged and empathic.

What are parents teaching their children by going to extremes to clear boundaries for them?

We have to model what a balanced adult like looks like. When we convey desperation or preoccupation with things that don’t, ultimately, matter, we are sending an unhealthy message that life is smaller, more drab, and scarier than it needs to be.

Do you think there’s a way to help parents feel less anxious about their children’s futures?

Yes, they should know that there is a huge base of scientific evidence supporting the role of positive, caring relationships for learning. We see this in research on effective teaching, and we certainly see it in the body of evidence around how secure attachment creates neural growth. Relationships literally build the architecture of the brain in the early years. And don’t forget that adolescence is a time of great brain development, too. It’s never too late to forge deep connections with our children.