I spoke at length to an administrator at a prestigious private school who talked about the damage done to children’s sense of self when their parents (overtly or covertly) contradict a school’s purpose and values. At good schools, for example, the college counselors know the kids. They know the colleges. They compile lists of prospective schools with the kids’ best interests at heart. But the parents, unsatisfied, hire a private college counselor, who makes a different list of schools—along with different things the kid needs to do to get in. And the child is put in an impossible position of having to pretend to want both things. “You’re asking the child not to passively accept this, but to actively talk out of two sides of his mouth. This goes to a kid’s core identity. Who am I? How am I representing myself?,” this administrator says. “And the result is a kind of cynicism. There’s nothing like cynicism to prevent an authentic development of self. It’s the ultimate defense against meaning and purpose.”
But the kids who learn the lesson of cynicism may in fact suffer less than those who don’t. What parents are really telling children with their constant intervening is that there’s no way for them to succeed on their own, says Harold Koplewicz, a founder of the Child Mind Institute. “The message to the kid is, You aren’t good enough.” He compares these parents to “fixers,” who illicitly manipulate outcomes for their clients. In their effort to build their children’s success, parents may actually be short-circuiting their self-esteem, and stunting their self-efficacy, making them unable to tell the difference between the things they can accomplish in the world, with the application of hard work and native ability, and the things they cannot. Jason Stevens is somewhat blunter. A fixing parent can make a child, he says, “crippled. Or entitled. Or both.”
Here’s my excuse, and I presume it’s yours, too. It’s tough out there. The future is uncertain, and no one knows what skills kids will need to get by in war or warming or economic collapse. The accoutrements of middle-class stability and comfort feel like they’re slipping away, even to those of us living smack in the middle of them.
The urge to ferociously protect kids in an environment of scarce resources is not a modern impulse but an animal one. Bonobos are some of the most openhearted creatures on Earth. They care for one another’s children; they have sex all the time. But chimpanzees, to whom bonobos are closely related, are venal: They’re hierarchical, aggressive, and mean. A chimp mother will, when it suits her, kill another mother’s child. The difference is scarcity. Bonobos live in a region of the Congo where there’s always enough to eat. Chimps live in regions where food is seasonal, and competition for it is fierce. Humans are primates, too.
But in unexpected places, a countermovement may be gathering strength, led by people who understand that humans can—and do—rise above their animal instincts. And the agents of this backlash are most often not brave parents but their more stubbornly idealistic children. “I know kids,” says Pope, “who are absolutely mortified when their parents cheat the system. They’re embarrassed and ashamed.”
I know a young man who, on moral grounds, steadfastly refused to enlist the help of an SAT tutor or indeed do any test prep during his overheated senior fall at a private school whose name you know. The college-application system is broken and corrupt, the kid said. “I could sense around me this horrible stress and this defeated feeling,” he told me. “The more prep you take, the more tutoring you do, the better your scores. It seemed like a gross system. I didn’t want what I was doing to be determined by it. I didn’t want to play their game. I wanted to play my game.”
For a season, his parents walked a tightrope strung between loving support of their son’s moral stance and perpetual anxiety that he was throwing his life away. At least, the father advised, make a virtue of your stand and explain to the admissions officers your objections to this process. “He said if I have a better way of doing it, I better damn well show that I do.” But the kid refused to do that, too. “My parents are wonderful people, and they knew that this was a big moment in my life,” he recalls. “They were honest about their anxiety and the situation we were all in together.”
Does this story have a happy ending? The kid didn’t get into any college and lived at home, working, until it was time to apply again. (At which point he still blew off SAT prep, feeling that the test he’d already taken was preparation enough.) But he learned something about himself, which was that he really did want to go to college, and now he’s happily studying classics at a school not in the U.S. News top 50, composing electronic music that would blow your mind.