Parenthood means you cannot possibly behave as though society’s rules and norms apply equally to all. Anthony Gray, who runs the Institute for Global Ethics in Maine, says the most difficult moral choices are those in which a person is faced with “two or more legitimate rights in dynamic tension.” On the one hand, there are your child’s health, résumé, self-esteem, and future opportunity, and on the other, there are other people’s children, the rules of a community, and the need for your own child to learn hard lessons about self-sufficiency, responsibility, struggle, honesty, and failure. “It is good, it is right, to want your child to do well in school and to get into a competitive college and launch their life into adulthood. It’s right to help your kids with homework,” explains Gray, parsing the dilemma. “It’s also right to teach your child the importance of truthfulness. And to avoid direct conflicts of interest.” A decision-making process is taught at the institute that Gray calls “reflective reasoning,” which religious people might call “discernment,” a tuning in to one’s conscience to discover the higher right and then summoning what he calls moral courage to act accordingly. But when an entire culture is clamoring to get theirs, that clear, small voice can be difficult to hear.
“It’s the opposite of the free-rider problem,” the Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz explains: If everybody recycles, then you can be the one person who doesn’t, and you still benefit from all the recycling that goes on. But if everybody is occupied full time making sure their kid wins and other kids lose, then taking the high road doesn’t serve you at all. “It’s a corrupt system, and your opting out won’t change it. You gain nothing, and you lose a lot.”
Though invariably proud of their children, parents are not always so proud of themselves. I know a man who does SAT tutoring for the children of Manhattan’s private-school elite, charging families $22,000 per child per year, and every time he meets a new client, he says, the mother sheepishly pulls him aside in the foyer and says, “We’re not like this.” We’re not the kind of people who spend tens of thousands of dollars on tutoring, except here we are doing it. (Because of rampant prepping, the Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York recently announced it was ceasing to recommend the ERB, the standardized test, as a valid measure of preparedness for kindergarten.)
Jason Stephens is an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut who studies cheating among adolescents and is interested in what he calls the “judgment-action gap”: why high-school students cheat, even when they know it’s wrong. Parents, he says, are displaying a similar disconnect, seizing advantage for their children while discounting the gnawing feeling in their gut. It’s like a drug addiction, Stephens says. Each infraction may, in itself, be relatively small, but the effects are cumulative. “It’s a culture,” says Stephens. “It’s not hard to see how parents can justify this behavior—they’re just prioritizing other values and goals, the child’s well-being over the greater good. It means more to me that they get the leg up than if I have to lie a little bit. Now that I’ve done the wrong thing, I have to not feel guilty. I don’t want to run around feeling like a shmuck. I rationalize it, I justify it, I diffuse my responsibility. Hey, it’s not my fault, this is a cultural thing.” As when watching a parent drink three glasses of wine at dinner, a child begins to regard this behavior as ordinary, and then, Stephens says, “it comes to define who they are.”
Most parents don’t think of themselves as the kind of people who prize winning above all. Most hope to teach their kids what used to be called “good values,” which a previous generation learned in scouts or church: kindness and compassion, respect and responsibility, to “do unto others” and be grateful for small things. But how are children supposed to learn honesty and fairness when the parents are yelling at the coach to give Johnny more playing time? Or wrangling behind the scenes to get Susie into a particular day care? Put another way: By advantaging kids at every turn, are parents, in fact, laming them? Are they (we, for I have a 9-year-old daughter) raising children they may not ultimately want as colleagues, neighbors, or friends? “You can preach and you can preach,” says Audrey Kindred, director of family programming at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, “you can tell and you can tell, but we all learn primarily by example. There is something about what we’re not intending that seeps through much stronger than what we are intending.” My father told me not to smoke, and then he stole my cigarettes and smoked them himself: I was a smoker for nearly 25 years.