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College Admissions Scandal: Are These Just Snowplow Parents?

Actually, it goes deeper than that.

I was as surprised as anyone to learn that Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman, other celebrities and “parental elites” had bribed, cheated and lied their kids’ way into our nation’s most selective universities. These moves give new meaning to my sixteen-year-old daughter’s refrain, “Mom, don’t be THAT parent.” And the irony was not lost on me. One of my favorite Felicity Huffman performances is that of an ethically compromised Head of School in Season 2 of “American Crime.” (Did she learn nothing from that experience?)

I was less surprised than most when journalists pointed to this recent drama as a natural extension of tremendous inequities in college admissions. I'm not sure I agree with them entirely. But as someone who lives and works in the Boston area, I surely know—as do my daughter and her friends—that America’s educational playing field is so not level that it might as well be turned on its tail and tipped toward the sky. And as journalists have noted, in places like New England, New York, and Los Angeles, this starts with prep school, K-8 independent schools, elite public schools, and “selective” preschools.

Here’s my question, as an adolescent psychologist. What did these parents, who lied about their children’s athletic abilities and experiences, paid people to take standardized tests, and bribed admissions and test prep coaches, believe they would accomplish—and for whom? Are they “snowplow parents?” “Yes,” in that they are entitled, and “maybe,” in that they are clearing obstacles for their children. But I suspect their motivations are even more troubling than those of typical helicopter and snowplow parents. They are seeking status, “experiences” and advantages on behalf of their children; but really, they are seeking something for themselves. And it’s not just about the bumper sticker. Many of these parents, themselves already successful adults, are attempting to live vicariously through their children. All of us recognize this temptation, but most of us keep ourselves in check. So what do we call those who don’t? Shotgun parents? Ride-along parents? "Skitcher" parents? (Look that one up.)

I’m struggling to come up with a word that captures the complexity of these parents' motives. Of course, we all want valuable brands, and experiences, for our children, but most of us aren’t willing to lie, cheat, and steal to procure them. These parents appear driven not only by their narcissistic needs; they seem to be seeking an adolescence "do-over." The driving forces of their actions go well beyond the best interests of their children. It’s like they are hitching a ride in their teenagers’ lives. Believe me, I get it. Kids have fun. They get to try things for the first time. They generally haven’t made a lot of regrettable decisions, or poor marriage choices. They have their whole lives ahead of them. They often have more than we had because we’ve made sure to provide it. And we’re more tolerant and indulgent with them than our parents were with us. But they don’t want us to ride along, and we are not doing them any favors when we do.

You know the worst offenders. They have their kids’ friends over to drink and vape because they like being the “cool parents.” They say “we” have a skating competition or “we” are looking at X college. I’ve known some families who have used (far more mundane) connections to get their children admitted to colleges where they don’t have the requisite scores and grades. Sometimes, down the line, it becomes painfully clear why they needed to use that connection. If your child is privileged and white, be realistic about their abilities. Allow them to attend a college where they meet the admissions standards. This will give them the clearest shot at bona fide success.

If you're tempted to helicopter, snowplow, or fill in the blank, ask yourself: “Am I doing this for my child, or for myself?” “If I haven’t told my child I am doing it, why not?” Take a moment to reflect on your motives.

And if you come up with a good term for parents who live vicariously (often at their children’s’ peril) please email, text, or Chat me.

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