The 2019 college bribery scandal is perhaps the most blatant evidence of the lengths to which parents will go to ensure their children are admitted to the most prestigious colleges and universities in the country. Those with the money and connections to do so, bribed admissions officers, test administrators, and coaches to commit fraud in order to gain admittance for their children. These shocking allegations have brought up issues of the inequity of college admissions for students who pursue admission honestly and have gotten the attention of lawmakers to university administrators and parents, who are getting a close-up-and-personal look at the high stakes of elite college education.
Where does it begin? From my observations, conversations and comparisons about pregnancy and birth continue through early childhood into adulthood when parents compare their children’s accomplishments beginning with how big they are at birth, how easily they do or do not nurse, when they crawl, sit up, say their first words, and sprout their first teeth. Every developmental milestone is seen as an accomplishment and often a point of pride for the parents, as it should be. For some, however, their children’s achievements reflect their own success, perceptions they wear as their own badge of honor.
Social media is known for promoting a false positive for the lives of most subscribers, inspiring multiple emojis, “likes,” and comments: “I want your Facebook life!” I find myself wondering why people need so much publicity.
Parents are prime customers for social media, creating Instagram pages for their children and videos of first moments. Many things posted would not be shared person-to-person because, frankly, it would be a little embarrassing, but somehow, these badges of parenthood are fine to share on Facebook.
What does this say about our commitment to parenting? We are proud of our accomplishments, I mean, our children’s accomplishments. We pat ourselves on the back for providing music lessons, dance lessons, for spending hours on athletic fields watching our children run back and forth kicking a soccer ball, and help create an amazing science fair project. Of course our children benefit from such support and involvement, but when does it become such a high-stakes game that parents are willing to risk prison to ensure admittance into college?
It is a long time from birth to high school graduation and many parents have a lot invested in their children both emotionally and financially. The icing on the cake is the child’s entrance into an elite college, providing connections that will help them get a job and secure their future. It wasn’t always this competitive.
I remember my own path to college in a much more relaxed time when I decided to attend Community College because I didn’t really know what I wanted to study and I wanted time to figure it out. I also was very conscious of the cost of a four-year college (though it was much less at the time) and transferring to a University after Community College was much easier.
My college counselor asked which university I would be interested in and suggested a few. I picked one and that is the college I went to. I had a great experience, having learned what I was interested in and studied hard during the two years I was there. When I graduated, I came home to get my teaching credential locally so that I could work while going to school. I had no loans, no debt when I graduated. This seems like a rosy picture of life long ago when I look at it now.
When my own daughters were growing up, they participated in extracurricular activities and had many interests. They worked hard in school but by then they were encouraged to take AP classes, have a well-rounded college application and work experience, precursors for admittance into the “good” universities. They ended up going to UCs, as out-of-state tuition was not possible for us, but still graduated with loans to repay and we, the parents, had loans, too. College was a huge commitment. I was proud of my daughters’ accomplishments and am still proud of them as they navigate the working world, support themselves, and pursue their interests.
When I think of the wealthy celebrity parents who bought their children’s way into prestigious colleges, I wonder how they can feel any pride. Their boasted badge of parenthood is a sham, like parents who complete their children’s homework, or do all of the work on a big school project, then gloat about how well their child did, or how they got first place. This doesn’t fool the child who knows he/she didn’t accomplish this on his/her own and it doesn’t really fool anyone else. How must it feel to be the parent who knows their child didn’t deserve admittance, who took the spot of a potentially deserving student? How must it feel to be the child who knows that his/her parents don’t have enough faith in their abilities to gain admission to a college on their own?
To be fair, there are many children who work very hard, are smart, and gain admission to great universities. It is only natural for their parents to be proud of them and share their excitement with friends and family.
It is equally important for parents to celebrate all that is good about their children, for not all children want or need to go on to higher education. Some are gifted musicians, artists, or construction workers; some learn trades through apprenticeships, working their way up, gaining experience along the way.
The badges of parenthood that are most important, most respected, are those earned for being there for your children as they grow into the people they want and are meant to be. What we as parents really wish for is for our children to be happy, to find something they love to do and connect with people in a meaningful way.
I would be honored to wear that badge.