Lessons Parents Should Learn from the College-Admission Scandal

by Jim Lobdell

In the end, this week’s college admissions scandal can teach parents one of two lessons: create your own broad definition of success and parent your kids out of hope and conviction, or default to our culture’s narrow definition of success and act out of fear and anxiety.

What happens when the most resourced, educated parents give in to fear and anxiety and focus on narrow markers of “success” — grades, test scores, resume-building accomplishments, and college admissions?

  • They discount research that dispels myths about the importance of attending prestigious universities.
  • They send messages to their kids — sometimes subtle, sometimes direct — about the make-or-break nature of academic and extracurricular performance. Kids internalize that “good” won’t cut it, and many feel forced to cheat their way to the top.
  • They allow their kids to participate in the academic and extracurricular arms race, even as the load means compromising sleep, mental health, and overall well-being.
  • They mortgage their kids’ adolescence with a schedule most adults couldn’t maintain, at a time when teenagers should be forming their own identity. It’s a debt that will eventually come due, often in the form of a quarter- or mid-life crisis.
  • They and staff of well-paid tutors, coaches and counselors helicopter to monitor progress and snowplow to remove obstacles, undermining their kids’ agency and resilience along the way.
  • They see parenting as a zero-sum competitive sport, and the college bumper sticker on their car as the scoreboard.
  • And in the extreme, they act in outrageously fraudulent ways to leave nothing to chance.

The irony is that none of this fosters the most important attributes for long-term success in our increasingly dynamic world — creativity, resilience, problem-solving, collaboration, flexible-thinking, empathy, adaptability, to name a few. And it’s taking a devastating toll on kids’ development and well-being, not to mention hindering the path to authentic success. Many factors contribute to this dynamic, but a big part is on parents for focusing too much on things that matter little (achievement metrics), and too little on the things that matter most (character traits).

(What all this means for under-resourced students, whose families can’t play the game on this wildly uneven field, is the bigger, more damning story told here and here.)

Scandals aside, this dynamic was widely evident in 2007 when I co-founded Challenge Success, a research-based, nonprofit out of the Stanford School of Education that champions a broad definition of success and partners with families and schools to promote student well-being and engagement with learning. In subsequent years, thousands of well-intentioned, often affluent and educated parents have come to Challenge Success events fighting an internal battle, knowing in their gut that the treadmill to superficial success is not healthy or sustainable, but fearful that if they step off it, their children will fall behind.

As an antidote, Challenge Success developed parent education curriculum centered on common sense practices that have become, sadly, all too uncommon. We challenge parents to:

  • Define success on your family’s terms, in alignment with your values, and in accordance with who your kids are.
  • Take the long view of success, measured over a lifetime and not at the end of a semester.
  • Resist parent peer pressure, be informed, and trust your gut.
  • Debunk college myths and focus on post-secondary fit, not a brand name.

When you define success on your family’s terms, you reposition your stance as a parent — with an eye to the child before you, to their needs and interests, and to your values and hopes for what they can bring to the world as an adult.

Getting off the treadmill isn’t easy. Doing it, in fact, is an act of courage and a leap of faith. But there’s a preponderance of evidence that should encourage parents to take that step.

Jim Lobdell is a Venture Partner at Reach Capital and co-founder of Challenge Success.

This story was published in Palo Alto Online on 3/18/2019: https://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2019/03/18/guest-opinion-lessons-parents-should-learn-from-the-college-admission-scandal