The news that 33 parents, including the actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, have been charged in a federal case alleging that they paid a consultant to fabricate test scores, athletic skill, and academic achievements to get their children into competitive colleges is reprehensible. It’s also very relatable.
For parents, this is an age of impossibly high anxiety. If we’re not stressed that our kids aren’t eating enough vegetables, or acquiring the tastes for a suitably wide array of different flavors at daily sit-down family dinners, we’re reading articles blaming working moms for childhood obesity. Screens, even as they’re essential to the modern economy, are something we talk about as an addiction, and they have indeed been linked to alienation and depression. College, we’re told, is crucial for future success. It’s also more expensive than ever before, and many of us are still paying off student loan debt, even as we’re opening college savings accounts for our children’s education. That is, if we even believe that there will be a planet left for them to attend college on.
Wealthy parents are accused of paying millions of dollars to William Rick Singer, a consultant who allegedly falsified ACT and SAT tests and Photoshopped pictures of their children onto stock images of athletes, in the hopes of getting them into schools including Stanford, Yale, and UCLA. Paying bribes to get your child an advantage clearly cheats students who actually earned their own accolades. That’s wrong. But it’s not that surprising some did it.
Today’s parenting environment is a brutal scarcity model. You’re either acutely aware that there aren’t enough spots for everyone’s kids in the best educational institutions—starting with high-quality preschools—or you’re not paying attention.
What those parents did was an extreme, and very privileged, example of helicopter parenting, a practice and culture that has become ubiquitous, and not just in Beverly Hills. My colleague Jenny Anderson recently wrote about new economic research that reveals that the more inequality exists in a society, the more time and resources parents spend on their children. Parents haven’t become totally unhinged, she writes—they’re “rational economic actors responding to an increasingly unhinged environment.”
Of course, that doesn’t make it fair: “Even though helicopter parents may be acting rationally, the collective impact of the wealthy frantically working to ensure their kids stay ahead only exacerbates inequality, further entrenching segregation of opportunity for children,” she writes.
I don’t have the same resources as the parents who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their teenagers accepted to college, and I’d like to think that I would never cheat other children to help my own. I also believe what Anderson wrote in another story, that “The bribes, the cheating, the lying: it’s all for nothing. The prestige of a university does not determine what a student learns, their happiness at school, or how satisfied they are with their lives after graduation.”
Even as I write this story though, I have checked my inbox for the email I’ve been waiting for all week—one telling me whether my two children got into the Montessori pre-school program I desperately want them to attend next fall. I have spent close to $200, and countless hours, crafting their admissions package. I brought a 15-month-old to an admissions interview in a carefully selected outfit that subtly signaled the ways we encourage her independence, and embrace fluid definitions of gender (while also highlighting her cuteness).
If I could have baked a pie or written a donation check to improve my chances, I’ll be honest, I would have considered it. And while I’d be furious to learn that another parent had done the same, taking a spot my child could have thrived in, I’d also understand. It’s tough out there.