The college admissions scandal highlights some very important truths about privilege, mental health and, of course, parenting.
While the vast majority of parents are not in the position to bribe their children into elite schools, this extreme case illustrates the temptation many feel to take control of their kids’ lives. But an ultra-hands-on approach can have devastating consequences when it comes to a child’s mental health and ability to thrive.
“These parents thought their kids were incapable of managing their lives by themselves. And I don’t think there’s any worse message you can give somebody than ‘I don’t have any confidence in your ability to handle your own life,’” clinical neuropsychologist William Stixrud told HuffPost.
Stixrud is the author of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, along with Ned Johnson, president and self-described “tutor-geek” at Washington, D.C.-based PrepMatters.
In the wake of the federal investigation that led to charges against dozens of parents, Johnson and Stixrud spoke to HuffPost about the importance of relinquishing control and being your child’s “consultant,” not manager. Here are some guidelines for parents to keep in mind.
Understand The Power Of Control
In their research, Johnson and Stixrud have identified the importance for young people to feel a sense of control over their own lives.
“We have this epidemic of stress-related problems like anxiety and depression, and so many of those are related to the fact that kids feel so little control over their lives,” said Stixrud. “They feel like, ‘Here’s a script to get into college, and that’s what your life is going to be.’ It’s incredibly stressful and discouraging for many kids.”
In order to develop healthy self-motivation, young people need to feel a sense of agency and autonomy, which parents and educators have the power to foster.
“We have this epidemic of stress-related problems like anxiety and depression, and so many of those are related to the fact that kids feel so little control over their lives.”
– Clinical neuropsychologist William Stixrud
“The goal is to raise kids who feel motivated and want to work on themselves and contribute, but aren’t obsessively driven, or on the opposite end, smoking pot all day thinking ‘Who gives a shit?’” said Stixrud.
Letting a child take charge of his or her own life means that parents have to be less in control. This can be challenging, as losing control is stressful for many parents, who cope by seizing evenmore control.
“By definition, it’s a zero-sum game, so anxious and stressed-out parents may screw up their kids’ autonomous motivation when they try to take charge,” said Johnson.
Johnson believes the solution is helping parents understand that growth is not linear so that they don’t worry about their children’s futures as much.
“Parents fear, ‘If my kid is a C+ student in seventh grade, that’s going to be a straight-line trajectory, and he’s going to end up with a C+ life.’ But like bodies, brains develop at different rates,” Johnson explained. “We’ve seen so many kids who were kind of a mess when they were 12 or 17 or 22, but as their brains develop, they flourish. They’re post-cocious instead of precocious.”
If more parents understood this, they may realize it’s OK for their kids to struggle at times. “They can look at high school as four years of helping their child develop rather than sacrificing everything to help their kid get into a college that’s one notch higher on the U.S. News & World Report rankings,” Johnson said.
Be Your Child’s Consultant
“We suggest parents think of themselves as consultants, rather than a kid’s manager or boss, or the homework police. It’s a very different kind of thinking about your role,” said Stixrud. “As a consultant, your role is not to force anything or say ‘You need to be like this.’ Instead, help your kid understand what he or she wants to be.”
He advises parents to encourage their kids to make their own decisions long before the college years. It’s important to constantly ask, “Whose life is this?” and realize the answer is “My child’s life, not mine.”
“We think the best message you can give an adolescent is ‘I have confidence in your ability to make decisions about your own life and learn from your mistakes, and I want you to have tons of practice making these decisions and running your own life before you go off to college.’” Stixrud added.
The role of a parent-consultant is to offer help, not force help. Instead of thinking everything is too important to allow any missteps, realize that you can let some things go wrong and then figure it out.
“Ideally, they can solve their own problems and face their own failures in the context of a warm and loving family. We don’t encourage deliberately setting kids up for failure, but take a step back,” Johnson advised.
“Tell your kids, ‘I love you too much to fight with you about your homework.’ Think of yourself as their homework consultant, but don’t take responsibility for it,” he continued. “Many parents ask, ‘So just let them fail?’ No, I’m saying help them in any way you can, but don’t act like it’s not their responsibility. Because you’ll weaken them if you do.”
Let Your Child Practice Making Decisions
Stixrud recommends giving children decision-making power from an early age. With little kids, it can be as simple as asking, “Do you want to wear the blue outfit or the green one?” and being respectful of their opinions.
“You can say to them, ‘You’re the expert on you, so you know when you’re hungry or full.’ Or, maybe when deciding if a coat is necessary, say, ‘You know what it feels like to be cold. You can figure it out,’” he explained, adding that free play in preschool helps kids develop a sense of agency as well.
As kids get older, it may be a matter of choosing the right high school, the number of AP classes they take in a year, whether they get a part-time job, how they spend their summer vacation and if they study French or Spanish. With those kinds of academic choices, it’s imperative for young people to take some ownership so that they feel compelled to prove it was the right choice.
“If I make the decision for my kid, then he doesn’t own it. I do.”
– Clinical neuropsychologist William Stixrud
“If I make the decision for my kid, then he doesn’t own it. I do,” said Stixrud. “And then he may be invested in his own failure, just to say ‘I told you this was a bad idea, Dad!’”
Stixrud suggests parents give their kids experience running their own lives before they go to college and are forced to do it. Have them schedule their own appointments, do their own laundry, cook for themselves or even work a part-time job.
“What’s really helpful to kids is treating them respectfully,” said Stixrud. “Kids have brains in their heads, and they want to be successful. They want their lives to work. Trusting them and supporting them works much better than thinking ‘We know what’s best’ and trying to force kids to fit our mold.”
Be A Non-Anxious Presence
Rabbi, therapist and leadership consultant Edwin Friedman wrote of the value of being a “non-anxious presence” ― a model that Johnson and Stixrud believe can inform parenting.
“He argues that organizations like schools, churches, families and corporations work better when the leaders aren’t anxious and emotionally reactive,” Stixrud explained. “It’s much easier to handle a toddler having a tantrum if you remain calm. It’s more helpful to a 15-year-old who comes home having failed a test if we stay calm.”
Because stress and anxiety can be contagious, moving in the direction of being a non-anxious presence is more constructive for children than seeing a parent get deeply upset if they don’t do well.
Kim Metcalfe, a retired professor of early childhood education and psychology, shared a similar sentiment with HuffPost.
“When kids fail, encourage them to persist and they will build resiliency skills through the process of persistence. Encouragement looks and sounds very different from discouragement, which is steeped in blaming, teasing, shaming, degrading, or punishing children for failure,” Metcalfe said.
“Tell kids that we are on their side, that we love and care about them unconditionally and that we are there to support them despite their mistakes,” she added.
Realize College Acceptance Is Not A Golden Ticket
Needless to say, some of the most unhealthy thought patterns and feelings of pressure for young people are related to the stress of college admissions.
“So many parents and kids have shared delusions about this idea that you have to go to an elite college in order to have a successful and satisfying life, and that if you do get into an elite college, everything else is justified ― whatever you had to do to get in, whatever you had to do to yourself,” Stixrud explained.
“Partly it’s culture, partly it’s parents and partly it’s the competitive high schools many young people attend, but there’s this huge amount of fear about not getting into a certain level of college. There’s this sense of ‘Yale or jail,’” he added.
Of course there are certain advantages to going to elite colleges, but the idea that it’s necessary in order to have a successful career and satisfying life is patently false. And that pressure takes a toll on young people’s mental health. Johnson and Stixrud pointed to the headline-making stories of high-achieving students who died by suicide at Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania and other elite colleges.
“People always say, ‘I don’t understand it. She was such a great student, great leader, great athlete, she had so many friends’ ― as though people who wind up doing this are doing it because they somehow lost the meritocratic race,” said Johnson. “But the extreme and chronic pressure they put themselves under both allows them to achieve at such a high level and gives them profound mental health disorders.”
Instead of treating college acceptance as the golden ticket needed for a happy, successful life, parents should focus on raising kids who develop healthy brains and a strong sense of self. Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford dean and author of How to Raise an Adult, has described many high-achieving college students as “existentially impotent” ― driven by fear of failure rather than any sort of intellectual or emotional freedom.
“High school should be four years of developing yourself, finding what you’re good at and working on those skills,” said Johnson. “Young people should be trying to understand what they naturally want to do as opposed to only asking, ‘Does this look good for college applications?’”
Ultimately, the key is to keep college admissions in perspective. “There are so many headwinds kids will face as they grow up ― illness, divorce, job losses,” said Johnson. “If the worst thing that happens in a kid’s life is she didn’t get into her dream school, what a beautiful life that must be.”