AP NEWS

Take-the-wheel parents root of admissions scandal

March 23, 2019

I learned some important life lessons in Harvard Yard. And so, three years ago, when I found myself back there with my then 11-year-old daughter, I gave her one.

We were touring the college, and my daughter expressed interest — even though only about 5 percent of applicants to Harvard get accepted.

“But do you think you’re prepared to work hard enough to get in here?” I asked her.

That’s when she broke my heart.

“They have to let me in here,” she said.

“Really? Why is that?” I asked incredulously.

“Because of you,” she said. “I’m part of you.”

She is part of me. I’m proud of her, and I love her to the moon and back. But I don’t want her to feel entitled, even though children of alumni do sometimes get preferential treatment in admissions.

So, right there, between Memorial Church and Widener Library, I decided to set her straight.

This memory comes to mind as I think about the college-admissions scandal.

When the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston announced 50 indictments in a $25 million bribery case that accuses wealthy parents of paying “enormous sums” to guarantee their children admission to elite universities, what was exposed was a sophisticated criminal enterprise.

The mastermind — William Rick Singer — pitched his Newport Beach, Calif.-based consulting firm as the answer to the prayers of parents who wanted to get their kids into the best colleges. Singer told investigators that he created a “side door” into the admissions process. Prosecutors claim that Singer passed off nonathletes as athletic prospects and bribed exam proctors to allow ringers to take tests on applicants’ behalf.

There’s a lot to be outraged about in this story: the fact that the rich and privileged play by different rules or no rules at all; the myth of merit, where the best and brightest have given way to the wealthiest and most connected; the fact that the admissions process is already corrupt because donors can get their kids in; the sad reality that these parents didn’t believe in their kids’ abilities to get into these schools on their own steam; the fact that high-achieving minority students have for decades had to put up with the “impostor syndrome” because of doubts that they deserved to be admitted to elite schools while the real impostors were being sneaked in through a secret passageway.

My kids will have to enter through the front door. And, while visiting my alma mater, I drove that point home to my daughter.

“Look, mija,” I told her, “If you want to go here, you’ll have to work your way in just like I did. You already have a head start, but what you do with it is up to you. Both your parents have master’s degrees. My dad, your grandpa, was a cop, and my grandpa, your great-grandpa, was a farmworker. If I could get to this spot from where I started, you can get here from where you are now — which is much further down the road. Either way, it’s on you.”

She scowled. But she knew this was not up for discussion.

Soon thereafter, I made a parenting decision. I decided that it is not my job to get my kids into college — any college.

I’ll feed them, give them shelter, check homework, pay registration fees, drive to theater practice and cheer at soccer games. But when it’s time for them — in junior and senior year — to research colleges, take entrance exams, juggle deadlines, write essays, sit for interviews, fill out applications and all the rest, I’m out.

It’s their responsibility to claw through that jungle. Just like I did, more than 30 years ago.

Which brings me back to the worst part of the college admissions scandal: It revealed another group of people who failed Parenting 101.

Some call these folks lawnmower parents, because they try to mow down their children’s challenges and obstacles.

But we’re beyond that. We now have take-the-wheel parents, who go from back-seat driving to actual driving because they climb into the front seat and step on the gas pedal.

It’s tempting to want to make our children happy, spare them pain and give them opportunities. But it’s not always helpful. And, taken too far, it can be lethal.

By protecting our kids from failure, mistakes and disappointment, we cheat them out of something we should all, at some point, get the chance to experience: the value of struggle.

ruben@rubennavarrette.com