Lessons in Love From the College Admissions Scandal

How helicoptering and steamrolling parents hold kids back

Posted Apr 22, 2019

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In recent weeks, the news of the college admissions scandal – where more than 50 people, including 33 wealthy parents, have been accused of bribery, falsifying and inflating test scores and applicant accomplishments in order to get affluent but academically mediocre students admitted to competitive “name brand” colleges – occasionally has eclipsed the everyday chaos of Washington politics.

Actress Lori Laughlin and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Gianulli have emerged as the poster parents for unrepentant steamroll parenting, paying $500,000 in bribes and making false claims regarding their children’s athletic prowess to get their two academically and athletically challenged daughters into USC.

Their daughters’ dreams didn’t seem to dovetail neatly with their parents’ ambitions for them. Older daughter Bella wants to be an actress. Their younger daughter Olivia Jade is already a top influencer and YouTube star, making a comfortable six-figure annual income from endorsements and product lines for her brand. In her YouTube videos, Olivia Jade has shrugged at the idea of college, saying that football games and parties might be fun but that she’d have to confer with the deans regarding class attendance, given her international commitments to her growing business.

So whose dream was this anyway? Lori Laughlin has said that she didn’t go to college and, for that reason, she especially wanted her daughters to have the opportunity that she missed.

And what lessons are their parents' cheating and bribery teaching their privileged progeny? Not much until they were caught in the recent dragnet. Now a vital lesson seems to be making an impact: when you make choices, there are consequences. And sometimes these negatively impact the beloved children you were trying to help.

In the wake of the scandal, Olivia Jade has lost many of her business deals and is wondering how she can rebuild her brand. Both daughters have withdrawn from USC. And their parents may be facing major prison time.

Whether we look at this news story with anger, disgust or simply with amazement at the lengths some parents will go to ensure their children’s futures, there are some lessons to be learned about what loving a child on the brink of adulthood really means.

Loving your child can mean letting him or her experience the failures or disappointments that come as a consequence of his or her choices.  Certainly, it makes sense to counsel them along the way, presenting your take on the consequences they will face from certain choices, some workable alternatives, and offering your emotional support when they tackle a challenge. But helicoptering and steamrolling them along, protecting them from disappointments or the negative consequences of their choices does them no favors in the critical task of learning to deal with life in the real world. When they develop resilience as they grow, young people can handle even major disappointments with aplomb. 

Some years ago, my young friend George emailed me when he received a denial letter from his first choice college. "I'm taking an hour, maybe two, to cry, feel sorry for myself and eat a bag of Cheetos," he wrote. "Then I'm going to be grateful for the colleges that did accept me and get on with my life." His life, in the years since, has gone wonderfully. He has a college degree, is thriving in a satisfying career and has a life filled with the love of family and friends.

George is making his own way in the real world just fine. And so are countless others who didn't go to Ivy League or other elite colleges or to college at all. 

In the real world, there are inevitable disappointments, downturns, tough challenges and situations where resilience, discipline, and a capacity to work hard and collaboratively come in handy for young adults. These are skills and traits that a young person may never develop if parents keep coming to the rescue and taking over, perpetually smoothing the way for them through any means possible.

Loving your child can mean listening to and supporting their dreams. We all have dreams for our kids. Sometimes their dreams and ours coincide. Sometimes we need to let go.

Not every young person is cut out for college. When parents try to remove all obstacles to an academically challenged or unmotivated, indifferent student getting an elite education, I can't help but wonder. What will life at an academically demanding, competitive, elite university be like for someone without the academic skills or motivation to take on this challenge? Isn't this simply setting these young people up for failure when there are so many other ways they might succeed? 

A friend of mine I’ll call Gina is a gifted teacher. Her husband is an academic administrator. Their older daughter and son both went to college and have excelled at their teaching and engineering careers. Their youngest child Caitlyn has distinguished herself in a different way. Her high school grades were abysmal. She had little interest in school. Her ACT score set a new low for the school district. Concerned, her mother sat down to talk with her about her future. “What do you want for yourself? What’s your dream for your life?” she asked her. Caitlyn replied quickly that she’d like to marry a rich man and travel the world. 

Her mother took a deep breath. “That sounds great,” she said. “But what will you do if he doesn’t come along right away or even at all? What if your prince turns out to be a toad? What’s your dream that will let you take charge of your own life for a time or maybe forever?” 

Her daughter frowned, then brightened. “I want to go to beauty school and become a hairdresser!” she said. Gina admits that it took her a little while to get on board with Caitlyn’s dream. 

“First I had to let go of my own wish for her that she would shape up academically, go to college and suddenly blossom with maturity into an excellent and motivated student,” Gina told me when her daughter enrolled in beauty school some years ago. “I had to admit that was even more unlikely than her meeting a rich husband! As I thought about Caityn's dream of becoming a hairdresser, I began to feel excited for her. Yes! Already she spends half her time doing her own or her girlfriends’ hair. And she's good at it!  Plus she has a wonderful personality.  She would do so well. Maybe someday she’ll have her own shop! And, really, all I want for her is to be happy. Well, happy and self-supporting. But most of all, I hope she will be happy and satisfied with her life." 

In time, Caitlyn’s dream has evolved wonderfully. She now has her own beauty salon and is prospering in her chosen field – with dedication and abundant joy.

Loving your child means helping him or her to develop the life skills and traits that matter most. These are qualities like kindness, integrity, courage, perseverance and caring. Developing these traits isn’t dependent on going to an elite college or on pursuing a prestigious, high-paying profession. Young people learn these from their parents and other important adults in their lives. We teach our children, by example as well as counsel, to grow up to become good people, loving partners and parents, and hard-working, caring adults who, in ways large and small, help to make the world a better place.