Intensive Parenting Gone Wrong and The Elite College Fallacy

Everything that’s wrong with modern parenting is apparent in the recent college admission scandal. The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston have charged nearly 50 people in an admissions conspiracy that involved parents paying anywhere from hundreds of thousands to more than a million dollars for admission advantages to the nation’s most elite colleges including Yale, UCLA and Stanford. Through a scam non-profit, Key Worldwide Foundation, William Rick Singer, of Newport Beach, California, assisted parents to cheat the system.

Parents paid for sit-ins to take the ACTs and SATs and bribed test officials to allow it. They paid to create false athlete profiles to pretend their children were actually top athletes. They paid off college coaches to designate students as athletes to lower the requirements. Basically, they paid heartily for every conceivable advantage, and it worked. There are so many disgusting issues in this case. But for the sake of brevity I’m going to address the one that is at the heart of this scandal: Helicopter parenting has gone too far due to the falsehood that the only way to be successful is to attend an elite university.

The list of parents caught allegedly cheating include actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin. However, the list of CEOs, entrepreneurs, heads of investment firms and high-level moguls of various industries is quite the who’s who of wealthy white privileged folks. Several coaches who were part of the scheme include Rudy Meredith (women’s soccer coach at Yale) and John Vandemoer (former sailing coach at Stanford).

I’m going out on a limb here but nearly anyone who is raising a child in this decade is a helicopter parent. Parents sign kids up for loads of activities and sit patiently watching them swing the bat or dance their hearts out. They pay (if able) for tutors, all kinds of wonderful summer camps and special coaches for pitching or weight-lifting to bump up our kids to the next sporting level. Schools expect intensive parent involvement evidenced by the daily emails listing up-to-the-minute grades for each child. From birth, most parents provide endless amounts of attention, energy and finances to help their children launch into adulthood with a high degree of certain success. On some level, there’s nothing wrong with that.

However, as this case shows, some helicoptering mothers and fathers take involved parenting to an unacceptable, potential harmful and now illegal level. There’s a false belief system at work that takes well-meaning parents and turns them into one-track thinkers. They believe that admission into the very best college is the ultimate prize for both parent and child. Eighteen years are spent building the resume to present to colleges. Networks are developed. Every avenue is tapped to allow little Jamie or Jimmy or Johnny or Jennifer to attend the most respected college. Mind you, it’s not the best college for the child in terms of fit, cost and size that matters. No, parents are trying desperately to gain entrance for their children into the highest ranked colleges.

Of course, most parents aren’t indicted for racketeering conspiracy or mail and wire fraud in the process. But as a family coach I’ve seen thousands upon thousands of parents fall into the best-possible college trap. These parents push their children to attend the fanciest college even if they can’t afford it. They thrust their kids into advanced or specialized programs just because they are deemed more exclusive. They forget a child’s persistent learning disability that required an IEP and significant support systems in high school and choose a college that has none of the needed supports. They ignore what’s best for their children time and time again. Why? Because of the fallacy that where you go to college determines the rest of your life.

I’m so sick of this way of thinking. I wrote a pointed column four years ago stating that I don’t care where my kids go to college. As my kids approach their senior years, I couldn’t feel more strongly in support of my thoughts years ago. Often when I express my opinions on this topic, I am met with comments saying I have sour grapes because either I or my children didn’t get into elite colleges. So, I’m going to put it out there. I went to three respectable colleges (Bucknell, NYU and Yeshiva University) but they aren’t at the top of any list. And I’m as happy and successful (in the way that’s meaningful to me) as anyone who went to Harvard or Penn or Yale.

What matters more than where one attends college is how well one does at any given university. Sure, if a child dreams of being president, a supreme court justice, a corporate lawyer or a neuro surgeon there’s an edge to attending an Ivy. But most kids aren’t going to be any of those professions. And even if they do, there are other ways to get there. In fact, some students stand out more for making their way and shining on a different track.

The jury is still out on how intensive parenting is affecting our children. However, I’d like to tell any parent listening that pushing kids throughout their entire childhood with the goal of improving chances of attending an elite school is misguided. More kids are starting and subsequently stopping college now than ever before. Many students leave schools due to the wrong fit, disliking what they were sure was their ideal major or increasingly due to mental health issues. Some students go back and eventually get their degree in more than four years. Others, who are not surprisingly the less privileged, often don’t graduate racking up huge debts that never go away.

Parents must start repeating the following phrase: It doesn’t matter where my child goes to college. It really doesn’t in the long run. But the pressure on parents and their children is immense. It’s ruining childhoods, creating difficulties adjusting to adulthood and causing parents to go to unhealthy means to achieve the ideal end. I hope all parents look closely at the indicted parents and coaches and try to find a speck of themselves. How different are you from those parents? What messages have you sent to your children about the importance of college acceptance? What have you pushed your kids to do because it would look good on an application? And more importantly, what can you do now to reverse course?

Let’s use this case as a moment to look within and blow up the fallacy that elite colleges produce the most successful and happy people. Then let’s stop using every advantage (legal or otherwise) to push for the highest-level acceptance. We can all do better. Let’s do it.

It’s Not Required. It’s Just Nice.

This week I walked into the lobby at work to see a two-story glistening Christmas tree with flowing red ribbon and lights. Presents are wrapped perfectly under the tree. The back office is tastefully decorated with lights and snowy scenes and garland. It’s really a stunning display. And yet, after the initial pleasantness of the decorations started to wane, I was hit but a familiar question: Why didn’t someone think to add a menorah to the holiday display?

Not everyone celebrates Christmas. Among other groups, Jewish people don’t. When we moved from New York to California it surprised our kids a bit to learn that almost every friend celebrates Christmas. When they tell their buddies, “We are Jewish,” the harmless questions begin.

Ok you’re Jewish, but you still celebrate Christmas, right?  
          No, we don’t.

But you still have a tree, right?
          Nope.

No Santa? No presents on Christmas morning?
          No to it all. 

What do you do on Christmas?
          Chinese food and movies.

These are all reasonable questions. Kids should ask questions. But what underlies the questions I think is what was bothering me about the Christmas tree decoration at work. I couldn’t shake the discomfort about it. But I also couldn’t put my finger on what was really upsetting me. So, while I shuttled my son Emmett to trampoline practice, I explained the situation at work. Then I asked him, “What do you think about when you see Christmas decorations in public without any support for Chanukah? Do you think businesses should put up a menorah?” I waited to see if he understood my question.

Thankfully, kids sometimes cut through lots of baggage and find the real issue quicker than their parents. Emmett summed it up perfectly. He said, “There’s nothing wrong with just having a Christmas tree. It’s just extra nice when someone puts up a menorah.” That’s it. Nothing wrong with celebrating Christmas and sharing your love for the holiday with copious amounts of decoration. I love the lights and the trees and the songs. I don’t care if someone puts their lights and tree up before Halloween or if they keep it up until Valentine’s day. I don’t mind Christmas music at Target on the first day of November. I actually enjoy it. Last year at work I participated in my first Christmas cookie exchange, and it was so much fun. And I just bought stupidly expensive tickets so that my entire family can go see Emmet Otter’s Jig Band Christmas in the theater. I’m down with Christmas, and I don’t have sour grapes about not getting to celebrate it. I guess I was missing was a tiny acknowledgement that in public spaces it’s ok to go the extra mile and support the Jews.

There has been antisemitism for as long as there have been Jews. But with the 24-hour news cycle and social media I’m bombarded with it more regularly now than years ago. I admit it stings a little more with each new episode. A few days after people were gunned down in a synagogue in Pittsburgh someone painted swastikas on a temple a few miles from my own. This week a professor at Columbia University was treated to the same vile display in her campus office. In response to these incidents my synagogue decided to hire armed guards so now I have to pass guns and sometimes cop cars just to walk my kids into Hebrew School. If you haven’t experienced this let me tell you, it’s unspeakably horrendous.

So, when the Jews are feeling down because lots and lots of people hate us and some of those people feel emboldened to publicly display their disgust and gun us down, it feels like it would be an extra special step to add a menorah to holiday displays. It’s not required. It’s just extra nice.

My Kids Aren’t Grateful, Help!

Consumerism in America is big business, and more than ever children are being bombarded with sensational toys and technology. It’s only natural that kids want these shiny new objects. When holiday time comes around many parents spend hours finding just the right gifts, wrapping them oh, so specially and waiting excitedly for the big reveal. Moms and Dads are filled with joy envisioning their kids’ faces when they see what they’ve been given. But all too often parents can feel deflated when their kids appear to be somewhat less than grateful for their bounty.

Like clockwork, one question always comes up right after the holidays: How can parents teach children to be more grateful? Taking toys away isn’t the answer. Neither is telling children there are starving children in the fill-in-the-blank developing country who would love to have these gifts. These attempts are useless and often come off more like an accusation than a teaching moment.

Kids aren’t grateful but it’s not because they are horrible spoiled brats. They aren’t excessively thankful because they haven’t learned the alternative. Most kids live in a bubble of their community. They know what they see, and in many cases, they see lots of excess. Additionally, most parents want to give their children all they can, and they usually do. However, parents rarely talk to kids about financial hardships. They hide how much they have to work to obtain enough money to pay for everything. Most don’t talk about the stress that can accompany providing. So, it makes perfect sense that children don’t really get the big picture.

Also, children aren’t born with empathy. It’s fairly difficult to be thankful for what you have if you can’t put yourself in the shoes of others who have less. How can we appreciate what we have until we realize that not everyone is so fortunate? Infants and toddlers have little capacity to understand the feelings of others or to be internally grateful for anything. But as children grow up, with careful coaxing and attention from parents, they can develop a strong sense of empathy and thus gratitude.

Now to answer the inevitable question of gratitude, here are eight suggestions to keep in mind this holiday season and beyond. Remember though that kids learn over time. So, little acts completed more often are better than any one big attempt at teaching gratitude.

Look in the mirror. Are you grateful, and do you express it regularly in front of your children? Start thanking your children for cleaning up their toys or offering you a hand in the kitchen. Tell your partner regularly how grateful you are that he or she did the cooking or loaded the dishwasher or took care of the bills. Let the kids see you writing thank you notes to friends and family for gifts you have received. Share your charitable endeavors with the kids. Find ways for them to contribute or at least share your passion for your chosen project with them.

Make the world a better a place, one act at a time. Helping others, doing good deeds, sharing joy all help kids appreciate what they have. It’s easy for parents get bogged down with the enormity of raising good humans. Instead of working on one huge project (although that’s fine) try to work on many simple acts of kindness on a regular basis. One year our family did a good deed a week, and it was amazing to see the change in my kids. We picked up trash around the local Starbucks. We baked cookies for the homeless shelter and neighbors. We did a toy drive. We wrote cards for the troops. Sometimes we just made sure to hold a door open or offer a ride or give a compliment. No act was too small to be recognized. Being kind and being grateful are highly connected.

Volunteer your time with the kids. During Thanksgiving and Christmas shelters and soup kitchens are inundated with volunteers. However, the rest of the year is often a scramble. Find a shelter, church or mission that allows families to serve. Volunteer to sort through canned goods to a food bank and bring the kids. Fold clothes at a thrift store. Deliver flowers in the hospital or visit an elderly person in a nursing home. Check out Volunteer Match to find local opportunities near you.

Adopt-A-Family. There is no shortage of families who struggle this time of year to provide the basics for their families, let alone gifts. Lots of agencies allow you to adopt a family and provide gifts for the kids. You receive the ages and sex of the kids, sometimes their interests, then you go out and buy the toys. The agency then delivers the toys for the family to wrap before the holidays. Bring your kids in on the action. Let them help you pick gifts and explain to them why you are doing it.

Travel. There might be no better way for children (and adults) to learn to be grateful for what they have than when they get out of their neighborhood and see how others live.

Find Diversity. When kids are exposed to people who look differently, eat differently, pray differently or live differently, they grow enormously. Finding diversity could be eating in a restaurant that serves food from a faraway country. It could be attending a religious service with a friend. It could be organizing a cultural harvest day at school where everyone brings in something to eat typical of their roots. It could be inviting an immigrant family over for dinner at your house.

Make Lemonade. Create a lemonade stand or a bake sale at your kid’s school to benefit a charity. Ask for additional donations at that time. Let the kids pick the charity to donate the money. When my kids were little a friend and cousin both had cancer, so we raised money for Alex’s Lemonade Stand. If a grandparent has Alzheimer’s disease focus funds there. If there was a recent storm or fire give the money to help rebuild. The key is to find something meaningful to your kids.

Watch Documentaries. There are so many powerful movies that can help children understand how much they take for granted. Some movies even have discussion suggestions for families. A good place to look for movies is on Common Sense Media. Here are some of my favorites: Batkid Begins, A Place at the Table, Bully, Paperclips, He Named Me Malala, I Am Eleven, Waiting for Superman, Hoop Dreams, Motel Kids of Orange County, and Happy.

Why is Brett Kavanaugh So Angry? It Might Not Be What You Think

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If you saw Brett Kavanaugh testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week you undoubtedly noticed his anger. According to Kavanaugh, he is being wrongfully accused of attacking Christine Blasey Ford at a gathering with some friends in 1982. What stands out from his appearance, and there was a lot to take in, is Kavanaugh’s visible rage. His facial expressions were so intense he looked like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men right before he yelled, “You can’t handle the truth.” Kavanaugh was the personification of Cujo, the dog from the Stephen King novel in the most unbecoming nature for a Supreme Court Judge. I think I keep turning towards movies to process his indignation because I’m having trouble with the extent of how much he lost control in that moment.

Of course, anyone who believes he is being wrongfully accused of something would be angry. And it would be reasonable even for someone to crack under the pressure of the enormity of the confirmation hearings. If something I worked my entire life to achieve was hanging by a thread I’d be hostile too. But there is more to Kavanaugh’s anger that needs to be explored. I believe part of the reason he is so filled with fury is because he truly may have no memory whatsoever about the night in question. It’s so completely not ingrained in his mind that he cannot fathom that it actually could have happened much like it is being reported.

In the 1980s I went to hundreds of gatherings just like the one described by Ford. Living in New York City it was easy enough for minors to find some alcohol. We drank for fun, and we often drank in excess. Of all the nights we did that I probably only remember a handful of actual moments from that time. They all blend into one large memory. That’s because during that time I wasn’t assaulted. Nothing out of the ordinary happened to jog my memory. I’ve learned in the last few years of several girls I knew who were victims of attacks. Some girls were victims of slut-shaming or unwanted sexual advances as well. I can promise you those girls remember the exact party where the incidents happened but many of their aggressors might not. (To those girls, I’m sorry I didn’t know, and I’m sorry I didn’t do more regardless.) How could they remember but I don’t? Surely, I was at some of those parties.

In college I remember one time being so drunk that after kissing a boy I turned to the side to be sick. Immediately after throwing up I looked up to find the boy was ready to kiss me again. I remember being disgusted by that fact. Who would want to kiss a girl who had just puked right in front of him? However, I wasn’t disturbed that I couldn’t possibly give consent in that state. Consent wasn’t even a concept I considered much. If you ask that boy if he remembered the incident he would likely say it didn’t happen. Why would he say that? Because he wouldn’t have remembered it. That night probably wasn’t different for him than any other night of the school year. He and his fraternity boys drank every single weekend to excess and every single weekend there were girls around to pursue. It’s like Ground Hogs Day. Wake up and do it all over again. Just change out some of the girls, but really the faces didn’t matter that much anyway.

I believe that is the explanation for why Christine Blasey Ford is 100% certain her attack happened and 100% certain that Brett Kavanaugh is the attacker. Meanwhile Kavanaugh claims he doesn’t even recall the get together. For Kavanaugh that summer was all parties and workouts and Beach Week. Kavanaugh and his pals drank to excess on so many occasions one particular night 36 years ago perhaps wouldn’t be recollected. He also pursued girls to add to his purported conquest list with the regularity of a part-time job. You know, the whole boys will be boys thing. Since Ford got away, nothing much of note happened. Right? Of course, not right. For Ford that night changed her entire life, so much so that in 2012 she was still discussing the assault with a therapist.

Brett Kavanaugh was so aggressively trying to deny being at the party because he may not remember it. It’s not because he may have blacked out but more likely that night was similar to so many. This is also the exact reason he would not ask for an FBI investigation. Because he knows in the back of his mind that he pursued girls with zeal in those days and that he drank excessively. He knows there is a possibility that something could have happened, and he just doesn’t remember it because it wasn’t out of the ordinary. Imagine how scary that must feel. What looks like rage during his testimony might have been more like a desperate attempt to hide the fear of not knowing for sure if you are innocent. The more afraid one is the more belligerent he appears.

It’s unclear what kind of investigation will occur in the next week with the FBI. It’s also unclear if this incident, whether shown to be true or not, will have an impact on Kavanaugh’s nomination. But what is 100% crystal clear is that this hearing has had an enormous impact on millions of women. One can only hope the same impact will be felt by millions of men as well and in 36 years from now so much of our culture will have changed.

Parents Talk But Are The Kids Listening?

Parenting is an endless stream of shopping, cooking, laundry, tucking in, checking homework, kissing boo-boos, running baths, making lunches, scheduling and doctor appointments. It’s disciplining and breaking up sibling battles. It’s cajoling picky eaters to just have one bite of steak. It’s helping anxious kids onto the bus for the first day of preschool and then calling an hour later to check in. It’s the toughest job, and we often don’t know if we are doing it right. I mean, besides the day-to-day chores, it’s hard to know whether we are imparting knowledge and wisdom to our kids. Will they know to give up their seats to pregnant women on the bus? Will they grow up to be good people who stand up for injustice? Will they be able simply to stand up for themselves?

Years ago, I learned how a good parenting talk doesn’t always land as we hope. When my daughter Casey was 7 she went to day camp with a good friend, Allegra. It is customary for kids to take a deep-water test to show they are ready to swim without intense supervision. My daughter could pass the test, but she was resistant. After a few days of her avoiding the test I had a long talk with her before bed. She told me she wasn’t taking the test because Allegra wasn’t taking it yet. I explained that sometimes it’s good to move forward when one is ready. I said her friend would want her to take the test. In fact, I mentioned that if she took the test it might help encourage Allegra.

The next morning, I again nudged her to take the swim test. Off she went to camp. I waited not-so-patiently for the bus to arrive home to find out if my parenting talk did the trick. Did she take the test? Well, Casey hopped off the bus with a big smile. “I passed the test,” she said.

“Hooray,” I replied. I was patting myself on the back. It was my talk that did it. I knew it. But I couldn’t let it rest. So, looking for an affirmation I asked Casey, “What made you decide to take the test?” She promptly put me back in my place, “Allegra did it!”

There you have it. I hadn’t influenced her a bit.

Most of the time, that’s how parenting goes. We talk and there’s no sign that anyone is listening. Kids nod and say, “Yup”—but really, we don’t know if we are making an impact. This week, eight years after the swim test, Casey helped me see that I am indeed giving her more than just a ride to practice and a hot meal after.

A few years ago, Casey was dress coded in middle school. Frustrated at the objectification of girls’ bodies I wrote a letter to the principal, and it went viral. Since then, we have had many conversations about dress code. The emerging #MeToo movement added an additional discussion point on the situation. This year the dress code was drastically altered in our district, allowing kids to wear just about anything. Administrators were explicitly told in the written policy that they are no longer allowed to “accuse students of ‘distracting’ other students with their clothing.”

So it was quite a surprise to Casey when at a back-to-school assembly, the new vice principal announced tight clothing would not be allowed because it could be distracting. Without a moment of pause, Casey raised her hand and asked, “Can you explain what about tight clothing is distracting?” Turns out the VP wasn’t quite ready for this question, and he replied with a rambling tangent. Casey raced into the house after school to tell me about the assembly. She was beaming with pride that she pushed back about the distracting comment. And then I was beaming. As parents we worry constantly about making all the right decisions regarding our kids. Mostly we worry about the minutia —Is this teacher a good fit? Will my kid make the water polo team? Why wasn’t my child invited to the birthday party? Solving those issues are all important. But it’s really a much bigger, broader question that looms. Namely—Will our kids be alright?

When I used to teach a social work ethics class I told my students that ethics was putting our values into action. Our values are what we stand for, even when it’s hard and maybe not convenient. When confronted with an issue that affects her and all her friends, Casey stood up and used her voice. I had talked, and she was listening. I could not have been more proud.

It’s Just Barbecue Sauce

Sometimes as parents we wonder what we would do for our children if given the chance. Of course I’d give an organ, arm or leg for my kids.

But would I spend $25 to check an overpriced bottle of barbecue sauce at the airport?

After five blissful days celebrating my in-laws 50th wedding anniversary in Maui we arrived at the Kahului Airport with a bit less than the requisite two-hour window. We returned our Chevy Malibu to Budget and hopped onto the bus waiting to take us to the terminal. We completed the agricultural scan, printed out our boarding passes and checked our bags to LAX. Everything went remarkably smoothly.

Our luck continued with all four of us snagging TSA Precheck. My daughter and husband placed their bags onto the belt to be scanned. Emmett, my son, loaded up the bag we were sharing, and we all passed through the metal detector. And then it happened. My bag with Emmett was placed in the bad lane. We had something impermissible, but what? A stray bottle of water maybe. Nope. It wasn’t water or sunscreen or something else inconsequential, either. When the TSA security guard pulled out the banned item, my heart sank.

One day during our vacation Emmett and I had a surfing lesson in the morning. After chilling in the hotel for a while I convinced him to come to town with me for a Dole Whip. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the local supermarket for some snacks. Emmett asked, “Can I look for a bottle of barbecue sauce to take home as a souvenir?” Sure, I told him. Last year when I went to Austin for a conference I brought him back sauce from The Salt Lick. He’s been slowly rationing the bottle since then. Some kids want keys chains or T-shirts or bracelets to remember their vacations. My son wants a condiment. I couldn’t be prouder.

So when the $8 Da Kine bottle was lifted out of my bag I thought, “Oh crap. Emmett will be crushed.” The TSA attendant read the look on my face, and told me I could go back out to the check in area and see if they could find my bag. If not, I could check it for $25. I gave my husband the boarding passes for him and the kids. I took mine and the bottle of sauce and left the secure area on a mission. No condiment left behind, right?

At the check in I meet Aleah, the Hawaiian Airlines employee contracted by American Airlines. I explain my plight. She isn’t moved. But she takes my bag tickets and says she will go out a take a look. Ten minutes pass. Then 15. I’m sweating and starting to lose faith. Finally Aleah shows up with bad news. She can’t find our bags. They have probably been taken already to board the plane. I go with Plan B. I ask Aleah if there is any way she can just check the sauce for me as a courtesy without charging me a fee. I explain I’m a loyal American customer with frequent flyer miles. Aleah says no, but agrees to ask her manager anyway. Before walking away she asks me what I will check the sauce in. She can’t just check a bottle. Then she walks away.

It’s now 11:46 am. My flight is boarding in 30 minutes, and I still have to go back through security. Finally she appears with more bad news. Her manager said she wouldn’t courtesy check the bottle for me but she would allow Aleah to go out once more to look for my bags. Aleah makes it clear this is a one-time privilege. I once again give her my bag tags and wait.

Tick, tick, tick. Aleah is nowhere to be found. I decide then and there that if Aleah comes back without my bag I will just check the darn sauce. The thought of seeing my son’s little lower lip quiver in sadness when he realizes his one special purchase was left in the airport was too much for me. I cleaned out my purse preparing to check it.

It’s noon, and I get a text from my husband—WHERE ARE YOU?. I’m starting to stress. At this point I just want Aleah to come back so I can check the bag, pay my $25 fee and run to catch my plane. But just then, like a Love’s in the desert, Aleah appears with one of our bags. I tell her she is a miracle worker. I tuck the Da Kine barbecue sauce made with real Hawaiian pineapple juice into the bag, close it up and thank Aleah. I pass through security with ease and run to the gate with a triumphant smile.

Would it have been ridiculous to buy a costly bottle of barbecue sauce then spend an extra $25 to check it? Probably. But I would have done it. I don’t think I would have regretted it either.

That would have been a great ending to this story. But it isn’t the end. Upon landing when our bag arrived on the carousel I noticed it was opened. Lo and behold, all the contents of the bag were there…except (you guessed it) the barbecue sauce. So there you have it. That’s parenting in a nutshell.