Imagine this scenario: It’s a Tuesday evening and you’re just home from work, still panting from the subway ride, when you determine without doubt that your fourth-grader has lice. The teeny pale eggs, they could be dandruff, but they’re not; ugh, dozens of them, everywhere, clinging to the silky hairs, and all you can think is, Not tonight.
Having been through this before, you know that the only way to help arrest a schoolwide epidemic is to spend hours, three at least, dealing with the vermin right now—combing, vacuuming, washing, drying—not including the inter-spousal fighting and the hysterical kid meltdown that invariably accompanies such an outbreak. Which puts bedtime conservatively somewhere around 11 p.m.
And tonight, of all nights, you just can’t afford the drama. You can’t. Because tomorrow is the ELA, the statewide reading-and-writing test whose scores in this crucial year will help to determine your kid’s middle-school placement, and sending her into the exam emotionally wrung out and insufficiently rested is not an option. It is not.
So here is what you do. You pretend that you didn’t see what you saw, that the lice don’t exist. You fill your child’s mind with calm, positive, and confident test-taking thoughts as you put her to bed early. That you are potentially contaminating 26 other children in her class—costing their families untold hours of anguish and lost work, and thousands of dollars in dry cleaning—by sending your lice-ridden kid to school creates a gnawing sensation in your gut, but this is not a sufficient deterrent. The lice can wait, and the test cannot; in a contest between your kid’s near-term success and her classmates’ longer-term (and let’s face it, uncertain) pain, your kid wins. Besides, you tell yourself, layering rationale upon rationale, one of them gave it to her.
But your child is no fool. She knows she has lice, and she knows what tomorrow is. For her, the takeaway goes something like this: Always be kind and considerate of others, except in those cases where consideration impedes your own self-interest or convenience. Then, take care of yourself.
Parenthood, like war, is a state in which it’s impossible to be moral. Worse, the moral weakness of parents is always on display, for children bear witness to their incessant ethical hairsplitting. It may be delicious fun to tut-tut over the corrupt child-rearing customs (and to pity the progeny) of the aggressively rising class: the mother who, according to Urban Baby legend, slept with the admissions officer (with her husband’s consent!) to get her child into the Ivy League, or the one who sued an Upper East Side preschool for insufficiently preparing her 4-year-old for a private-school test. But such Schadenfreude elides a more difficult existential truth, which is that ever since Noah installed his own three sons upon the ark and left the rest of the world to drown, protecting and privileging one’s own kids at the expense of other people has been the name of the game. It’s what parents do.
Every hour, it seems, a parent is given the opportunity to choose between her child and a greater good, and in those moments the primal parental impulse can be overpowering. “If some science-fiction sorcerer came to me with a button,” writes the philosopher Stephen Asma in his 2012 book Against Fairness, “and said I could save my son’s life by pressing it but then (cue the dissonant music) ten strangers would die somewhere … I’d have my finger down on it before he finished his cryptic challenge.”
So while the kiddie race to the top among the most competitive people may elicit the most grotesque behaviors, the fact is that all kinds of parents seize advantage for their kids when they can. (Jeff Zucker’s 15-year-old son somehow found his way onto the advisory board of Cory Booker’s tech start-up. If you could rustle up something similarly high-flying for your kid, wouldn’t you be tempted?) In fact, the very state of being a parent obscures clear ethical reasoning, creating blinders, explains the Duke University dishonesty expert Dan Ariely, “as to what’s moral and not moral.” The same person who would never lie on his own résumé may lie on his kid’s school application and feel that “they’re doing something for a good cause, that they’re actually being altruistic.”
Why else would an otherwise conscientious couple decide to hold their perfectly normal kid back a year, except that she’ll be that much older than the other kids in the class and thus that much better at sitting still during tests? Why else does a father volunteer to coach Little League and then put his son in the cleanup spot? Why else do parents do their children’s homework night after night, except that they fear that without the “help,” the kids would fail or falter or fall behind? Parents instruct their children to “get what they get and don’t get upset”—and then they beg and bribe the adults in their children’s lives, haranguing teachers for better grades and theater directors for bigger parts and clergy for “the best” assignment in the soup kitchen, and they curry favor (they hope) with foil-wrapped bottles or hard-to-get tickets at Christmastime. In the interest of giving kids “a leg up,” parents will do almost anything: They’ll call friends on the board; they’ll pull strings to procure internships; they’ll invite the coach over for dinner; they’ll claim strong adherence to a religion or an ethnic identity that is, in fact, weak; they’ll fake recommendation letters; they’ll neutralize their child’s competition for a spot on the hockey team by whispering something about someone’s alcohol use; and they’ll administer the occasional misbegotten tablet of Adderall. The ultimate litmus test in New York City is this one: How many good people do you know who have lied about their address to get their kids into the better public school? And are you more or less sympathetic if that person is a hedge-fund manager or his nanny?