Free-Range Kids

Is the College Cheating Scandal the Apex of the Over-Parenting Epidemic?

When all of childhood is considered college prep, desperate parents will do desperate things.


Gregg DeGuire/UPI/Newscom

Today's parents are stalked by the twin fears that their kids will be kidnapped, raped, and eaten—or not get into Harvard.

When either of those fears reaches a boiling point, parents do crazy things. I once got a letter from a 15-year-old whose father wouldn't let him out of the house, even to walk to the school bus stop, because he could be "abducted or killed." So while he was allowed to play video games at home, eat snacks, and watch TV, he could not take a ball to the park. "I don't want my kids, if I ever even have kids," he wrote, "to live like me at all."

His parents were so afraid of him being kidnapped that they essentially kidnapped him.

And now we hear that some wealthy parents were so afraid of their kids not getting into the right schools that they got them into the wrong schools—schools where their kids most likely did not belong. To accomplish this, they cheated. They bribed coaches and paid-off test providers.

There is no excuse for this behavior. But we live in a society where childhood is essentially college prep, and nothing else. To many parents, admission to a good school is the be-all and end-all.

Whether that's because we believe an elite school guarantees economic security for life, or because it confers prestige on the parent and child, or because we live in a sort of brand-crazed culture that worships Princeton diplomas—or for all of these reasons at once—the college admissions game has been ratcheted up to the point where even tots are in training. Recall the kindergarten that cancelled its play so the kids could have more test prep time. "The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple," read a note sent home to parents. "We are responsible for preparing children for college and career."

At Let Grow, the non-profit I co-founded, we think that if kids have some free time, they flourish. This is time to discover, wander, play, goof off, and find something that interests them. When kids are truly taken with something, they usually end up developing all sorts of skills that will serve them really well in the classroom and beyond: persistence, curiosity, focus. Let's replace some resume-building time with free time. Think of it as building a "resume for life."

Kids also flourish when they know their worth is not measured in grades, trophies, or the college banner on the wall.

We can dial back the college thing by thinking about all the amazing people we love or admire who didn't go to Harvard—or maybe college at all.

And finally, think back to your own childhood. Aren't you glad that it wasn't all about college, college, college? That your life had some meaning and joy beyond that?

Now that the cheating scandal has broken, my wish for those kids is the same thing I wish for all kids. To not be defined by their worst moment. To be able to love their parents and themselves despite it all. And to grow.