this is not about helicopter moms
So I opened Twitter this morning and look what I saw. What a fucking mess.
Apparently, many wealthy and famous families wrote large checks to a sketchy college admissions consultant to ensure their kids’ admission into elite schools. This consultant helped defraud SAT scores or lied about the applicant’s athletic abilities. Many of the kids had no idea that their scores had been inflated or their athletic resumes doctored.
My initial knee-jerk reaction was to be first disgusted by society in general for its needless reliance on status-based gatekeepers for our children. #MOMWEREWOLF
Then, I felt deeply annoyed by the narrative that "rich white helicopter moms" had paid to get their kids into top-tier colleges. Because I’m sorry… do these children not have fathers as well? #FEMINISTWEREWOLF
But I’ve been writing on the internet long enough to know to wait out a knee-jerk reaction. See, what makes a knee jerk is a hammer that hits me in just the right spot. I don’t even feel the hammer. I just see my foot jump and time was, I’d assume something was up with my foot. Now I’m older, wiser, and know that my foot has nothing to do with it. I just got poked in a tender spot. Now I have to go figure out where that tender spot is.
Yes, we live in a status-obsessed culture that often brands kids by the name of the school they went to, and that’s gross as hell.
Yes, I am wondering where daddy’s indictments are in these proceedings.
Yes, the decisions about parenting and education often disproportionately fall on mom's shoulders. If you looked into the paper trail of my kids' lives, you'd have to take my word for it that Ryan actually exists. My name is on everything. I sign the forms and checks. I’m in the classroom every other week. I bring in the nut-free bundt cake for appreciation week.
Now, it’s unfair that moms often do more of the work around their kids’ growth and education than dads often do. But I think I found the tender spot:
The disparity of labor between parents is not as unfair as lying to your kids about what their grades and efforts have actually accomplished.
And even that isn’t the most unfair thing of all. The most unfair part of this whole thing is that only some people have the luxury of believing that grades and efforts are the key elements in a person's accomplishments, rather than money, race, class, attractiveness, and power.
Such a lie hurts everyone. It hurts your kids even if they never find out you lied.
When you lie to your children about what they’ve accomplished, it changes their understanding of the world and marries them to a system where they believe their bought-and-paid-for access is the same as their hard work and unique point of view, and it's not.
College admissions is a zero-sum game. There are x number of beds for freshmen in the incoming class. They can go to people who earned them or people who bought them, and colleges have budgets that need filling.
But then, let’s go down another layer and say that all of those spots should go to kids who earned them. Sounds good right?
Except, you have to see that many of the kids who "earned it" were also given disproportionate access to opportunities to earn their accomplishments! Sure, these kids’ parents may not have donated $2.5M to Harvard, Jared, or written a check to a professional SAT taker.
But some children who do “earn it” are blessed to be born into wealthy, educated families. These families have the means to support their kids’ passions with music lessons, sports coaching, language classes, coding, or Parkour. These families have the access to raise their children in an environment in which they speak the same language as people who have money and power. These families have the time and good intentions to teach their children that philanthropy is the responsibility of those born blessed. When these kids succeed, it’s because they worked hard within a system that all but guaranteed them success if they did. That is not a promise that other kids get.
I know because that’s my family. I was born blessed. I went to an expensive private school, got SAT tutoring and math tutoring, and grew up in a community of wealth and power. I am comfortable in rooms with people who own companies, horses, ski chalets, pool houses, and airplanes. I did not earn the comfort that helps me to project confidence and ease among influential change-makers: it was delivered to me. I was raised there. I never had to learn the language as an adult. “This is your place,” was the message for as long as I can remember. That is not a message that other kids get.
So I’m speaking from personal experience, both as a child of privilege and as a mother of privileged children, when I say that kids don’t choose their privileges, often are not naturally aware of their privileges, and shouldn’t be punished or penalized for lucking into them.
BUT THEY MUST BE MADE AWARE OF THEM.
What they’ve achieved and what they’ve been given
are two different things.
Parents. You have one job.
Buster loves Legos. He loves the little kits — the Batmobile, a jungle truck — which he puts together with the help of a grown-up.
What if I bought a Lego kit, a really expensive badass one like Hogwarts or the Death Star. And what if I put it together, me and my husband and our parents and Buster’s teachers, whom we paid for their help. And what if we handed it to him, and said, “Great job, kiddo! You did it!”
I guess I did. I guess I’m pretty fucking awesome at Legos.
It’s not that Buster isn’t awesome at Legos - he is!
But he did not build the Death Star.
You know what he does? He invents his own little creations. That’s what he calls them: creations. They’re less complicated, less showy, less gasp-worthy than a seventy-quadrillion piece Death Star. But he builds them, talking to himself in little voices. They're his. He’s proud of them.
If I congratulated him on building a Death Star that I had actually built for him, I would be inflicting a double harm on my kid. First, I’d be prioritizing and praising an accomplishment that he did not actually perform, which is confusing to a kid. What I’d actually be expressing is pride in my own labor, not pride in his, and kids recognize that.
Second, I would be failing to praise and prioritize the work that he did actually perform, that he is proud of, and that did come from his hard work and unique point of view. I would be teaching him a warped view of what impressive looks like, and it’s what I handed him, completed, not what he worked to create with his own hands.
If you don't make the difference between privilege and accomplishments clear to your kids, they start to believe you when you tell them that they’ve achieved their own privileges, which are the things you value the most. They start to remember building a Death Star. After all, you told him he did it! You made such a big deal.
And when they grow up to discover that much of what they thought of as their victories were actually the natural byproducts of private education, tutoring, and good connections, all of which you paid for, that's a rough wake-up call.
"Did I ever really DO anything? Mom? Did I even actually build that Death Star when I was 4?"
The sexism that puts all the responsibility of parenting choices on moms is annoying, of course. I’m loath to judge other parents’ choices and especially other moms. I know how easy it is to fuck up even when you’re trying to do the right thing. And even though I don’t believe that all parents are good people or even that all parents genuinely love their kids, I do believe that all parents want their kids to be successful.
As a result, it’s easy for me to accept, if not happily, that some status-obsessed families bought access to expensive colleges for their kids. I’m sure I know some families in real life who have done or would consider doing the same thing.
What’s hard for me to swallow is that these parents sold counterfeit self-worth to their kids, the kids who will grow up to be in the rooms with influential change-makers, and who will believe, wrongly, that their access alone is a sufficient achievement, worth writing home about.
These parents stole spots from other hardworking children, but they stole valuable experiences from their own children, too. That’s the grossest part of all.
Access is not an achievement. It’s not a liability and not something you need to be ashamed of, but it’s not your best thing and it’s not your kids’ best thing either.
Let your kids work. Let them be truly proud. And teach them that access is love: it shouldn’t be for sale, but shared freely for the betterment of every single damn one of us.
That is all.
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