The recent news about wealthy parents enlisting the help of a “college admissions” company to falsify their children’s college application has received a great deal of publicity.
Frankly, what these parents did was disgusting. Some of the kids had no idea their parents were pulling strings, while I’m sure others knew perfectly well what their parents were up to. Children growing up in wealthy families know all about privilege — getting to the head of the line isn’t a new experience for them.
But it raises a number of issues for us parents who don’t have the means to grease their children’s way in life. A recent New York Times article talked about “snowplow parents” — moms and dads who remove obstacles from their children’s lives.
When should parents intervene and eliminate barriers for their kids? What are the potential benefits and costs? How do we know when to get involved and when to back off?
When my youngest daughter was 10, she wanted to go to a sleep-away camp on the East Coast. We were dubious, but she made a strong pitch. It was a three-week program and there were some family nearby. A day or two after we dropped her off, we started getting letters and calls that she “hated” camp and needed to come home immediately.
She was having an acute case of homesickness, which as most parents know, can be miserable. We struggled over what to do, but after days of suffering over this decision, we decided that she needed to stick it out. She told us how much she hated us, how awful we were and that she would probably die.
When she realized that we weren’t going to rescue her, she figured out how to make the best of it. Years later she reflected back on this experience. It was painful, but she learned that she had the fortitude to deal with a difficult situation.
Joey is struggling in ninth grade. He’s overwhelmed by all of the busy work that he has to do, and he buries his homework at the bottom of his backpack. His parents don’t know what to do — should they micromanage his homework completion or should they let him fail?
Sarah wrote her college application essay but wants her parents to edit her draft. Do they tweak it for her, which might improve her chances of getting admitted, or do they let her complete it on her own?
Don’t you wish there was a manual that came with your kid that tells you what to do? I sure did.
These are the nitty-gritty decisions of parenthood. So what compass can we use to find our way?
Consider the lessons you want your children to learn. Adulthood is filled with steep terrain, deep canyons and lots of sweat. Learning how to stay the course, even when the going gets tough, is critical for a happy, healthy and meaningful adult life. Adults do have more capacity to change their circumstances than children. But do you want your kids to bail out too soon of adult relationships or jobs when the path is hard? Let your kids struggle with their challenges before you step in.
Kids should do their best to finish what they start. My youngest tried every activity under the sun. She participated for a few weeks, and then decided she didn’t like it. We always made her finish the class, the season or the program. We didn’t make her continue — but she had to complete what she started. Adult life is filled with frustration and discomfort. But finishing something that you start is important for self-esteem
Learning from painful experiences is important. If we intervene, and protect our children from the ordinary suffering of life, they may spend their adult lives avoiding pain, even when it’s necessary or desirable to live through a hard time.
There are no absolutes in this playground. But keep your eye on the big picture and that will help with the everyday decision-making.
Paul Schoenfeld is director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His Family Talk Blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.