Emotional Health

When We Cheat for Our Children,
What is the True Cost?

Another big scandal has hit the news cycle this week, and for once it doesn’t have (much) to do with politics. It has been revealed that admission to elite colleges is for sale, and charges have been brought against advisors, coaches, and rich and celebrity parents who have been bribing them. A few of the parents are TV stars such as Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, and the international media has been hotly covering the story. When I heard about this my first thought is why is this even news? Everyone has always known that money buys admission. At a meeting with my daughter and the school’s college counselor, we compared scores of a student who had been accepted the year before to a selective school she was aiming for, to hers. The counselor said though her scores were the same as my daughter’s, they were not be evaluated the same way: the other student was a “development” case. That means that her parents were wealthy enough to be considered as major donors to the university in question, giving their daughter a definite edge. This system was not an open secret; it wasn’t secret at all.

There are two differences, however, from the current scandal. First, we assume money donated to a college or university will be used at their discretion to benefit the institution and its students. This, I have always assumed, includes scholarships for students who can’t pay tuition. But even if the money is earmarked for a building bearing the parents’ names, the argument is that it gives value to all.

In this latest case—sooner or later it will probably be dubbed “College-gate”—illegal bribes were paid to individuals for their own personal gain. Also, admission was not just granted to students with GPAs and other scores that were less competitive than other students’. Admission was granted on the basis of outright lies, like status as an elite athlete in sports that the student didn’t even play, or test scores that were the product of outright cheating or falsification. And no one benefitted except the student admitted, their  ambitious parents, and, of course, the person accepting the bribe.

In fact, everyone loses in this scenario. Frank Bruni, writes in The New York Times that in this kind of system,

“Winners and losers are often sorted not by merit but by privilege (or subterfuge). And even the winners lose. Actually, all of us do, because through this overwrought culling, we’re teaching a generation of children values that stink. There are moral wages to the admissions mania, and we need to wrestle with those.

At its worst, it corrodes the development of core aspects of young people’s ethical character, often fueling their self-interest, compromising their integrity, and depleting their capacity to either know themselves deeply or to authentically articulate their identity,’ reads a draft of a new report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project, which for the last few years has been a leading advocate for a less calculated and cutthroat process. ‘Many young people become cynical both about a system that seems unfair and divorced from their interests, and about the adults who created it.’”

What are we teaching our children in a system like this? Even the most earnest students have learned that everything they do in high school must be geared to be judged, and the pressure of the competition has divorced the idea of learning for its own sake, not to mention the joy of discovery.

Richard Weissbourd, a developmental psychologist who authored the Harvard report says parents,  “are focusing on the wrong things, with big consequences for their kids Parents are trying to give their kids ‘everything’ but they’re not giving them what counts.”

There was a time, not so long ago, when one of the most important goals of schooling was a “moral education.” Going to school, being a part of a team, having school spirit, learning to cooperate and support a community, the value of working hard and not cutting corners were all goals in and of themselves.

One could argue that a willingness to cheat, cut corners, and do whatever is necessary are qualities that help build billionaires, but are they necessary? Do we want to teach our children to get ahead at a cost of potential moral bankruptcy?

Schools used to be the places children learned to be good people regardless of their parents’ values. Agreed upon standards were endorsed and supported. Cheating was considered a paramount offense in academia. In many institutions it was grounds for immediate expulsion. Now parents are cheating their kids, either by encouraging them to cheat or simply by example by doing it for them. They may justify this by reasoning that their kids’ lives will be “ruined” if they don’t get into the right college. But by having taught their children these kinds of values, aren’t their lives already ruined?


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