When Eva McGregor Dodds, a Detroit-area based college counselor, meets with high-school kids and parents, she hears the same fears and concerns regarding their children’s future. Parents, of course, want the best for their kids.
But she has also observed something less wholesome. Parents, she said, want their kids to get into the best schools possible, not just so they can get the highest quality education. “It’s so the parents can brag,” she said.
Federal prosecutors dropped a bombshell indictment on Tuesday, accusing parents of paying $25 million in bribes to get their often unknowing kids into top schools, shocked many. Defendants include parents from the world of law, business and entertainment.
William “Rick” Singer, a college-admissions consultant at the center of the case who secretly taped many of his conversations with parents, “preyed on the fact parents can’t stand to see their kids not get what they want,” Dodds said. “This is a culture where no doesn’t mean no.”
The 204-page arrest complaint was filled with recordings of parents seeking assurances of top scores from paid test takers and acceptance letters.
The case has revealed the dark side of helicopter parenting, the cultural forces and status anxiety that fuel such risky gambles, experts say.
From controversies over a family’s unsupervised backyard fun to following your children to work, some observers have said such hands-on parenting is becoming increasingly extreme.
But the latest controversy has taken helicopter parenting to the extreme. Many of the parents named in court papers wanted their children to believe they tested strongly in college entrance exams. One child even took at fake college admissions exam at home.
Helicopter parenting is defined as a form of parenting where children overprotect their children. However, some studies have shown that children with over-controlling parents may later struggle to adjust in school and social environment.
One study published by the American Psychological Association last year found that “children with helicopter parents may be less able to deal with the challenging demands of growing up, especially with navigating the complex school environment.”
Giving children more freedom helps them develop the ability to handle stressful situations and, ultimately, leads to better mental and physical health, healthier social relationships and academic success, the study found.
Psychologists worry that many of the children in the recent college admissions scandal will feel humiliated, especially as many believed they were smart enough to get into these colleges. They will have to read the scorn heaped upon their parents and, in some cases their families, on social media and may also endure the resentment of their peers.
Here’s one poignant example of helicopter parenting gone awry: Singer told Gordon Caplan, an attorney at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, that his daughter would think she was the one to pull off her ACT score, according to the arrest complaint. Singer pleaded guilty to charges like racketeering conspiracy and Caplan’s been charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.
“She’ll feel good about herself,” Singer said.
The relationship between helicopter parenting and inequality
Yale University economics professor Fabrizio Zilibotti said the case reinforced everything in “Love, Money & Parenting,” a book he co-authored with Northwestern University professor Matthias Doepke.
The book argues today’s intensive, hands-on parenting makes economic sense at a time when more education is rewarded in the job market and economic inequality is high. “Parent of these families see enormous stakes in education,” Zilibotti said. “My hunch is this wouldn’t have happened 40 years ago.”
One reason parents are increasingly desperate to get their children into the top schools is that the stakes are higher than years before. Student debt recently hit $1.5 trillion. Looking at the value of college degree as an investment, Zilibotti said, “The return on education has changed,” he said.
No college admissions administrators have been charged in the case.
Richard Reeves, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. and author of “Dream Hoarders” wasn’t shedding any tears for the schools mixed up in the matter, and reserves his thoughts for the students who were deprived of a place at these schools.
Affluent parents are determined that their kids don’t go below the “glass floor” they establish, he said. That “glass floor” is made up of all the efforts and resources parents expend to ensure their kids don’t fall below them on the social ladder, Reeves explained.
Reeves has observed parents congratulating each other when their children have gotten into the college of their choice. “In certain circles, there’s a certain danger the actual success of a parent is seen in the success of the child,” he said.
“Things might have started going wrong when the word ‘parent’ moved from noun to verb,” he said. This college admissions scam case was the “tip of the iceberg” on how becoming a parent had changed from a family role to a profession.
“The product,” he says, “is the child.”