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Failing Our Children: The College Admission Scandal

March 17, 2019 | by Dr. Michael Milobsky

The recent scandal is an extreme example of one of the most sinister demises of our youth: helicopter parenting.

I own and run a Primary Care Pediatric Practice in Castle Rock, Colorado and I am witnessing firsthand the unprecedented rise in adolescent depression and suicide rates. The first steps in fulfilling our obligation to find ways to save our youth is education and awareness to our adolescent mental health crisis and its many possible causes.

Technology and social media are contributing to this crisis. Teens aren’t equipped to navigate the precarious reality of cyberbullying. But there are other root causes of this alarming state of affairs, and the recent college admissions scandal is an extreme example of one of the most sinister demises of our youth: helicopter parenting.

Helicopter parents take an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their children, overseeing children’s every experience and problem, and seeking to prevent failure at all costs.

Studies suggest that parents who overprotect and over-control their children cause mental health problems that, according to the University College of London, are lifelong.

What makes this phenomenon challenging to address is that helicopter parenting stems from good intentions. Parents believe they are helping their children, but in reality, their approach is slowly destroying them.

Imagine your toddler, who has just learned to awkwardly walk while grasping onto your fingers. As they master their first steps, you stop offering your hands as crutches, and encourage your little one to take steps without your support. They might start out reluctantly, looking for your hands to hold. Yet you encourage and prompt them to walk independently.

At first, they might take just a few steps. But you celebrate their triumphs and reinforce their courage and determination. They might fall. But you cheer them on to try again. You watch on as their effort leads them to become stronger and more coordinated. What starts as a few, wobbly steps quickly progresses to running, skipping, hopping and jumping!

Now, imagine being afraid to let go of those trusting little hands. Imagine fearing for the certain disappointment of falling. Imagine refusing to give up the safety of your reassuring support, always ensuring your hands are propping up your little one. As your toddler gets taller, they risk falling further. As their natural sense of fear and trepidation develops, they become more afraid of risking their first lonesome steps. They develop an unnatural dependence on your support. And their natural and ideal window for safely and appropriately developing these critical motor skills closes. What should have been seamless and natural becomes difficult and traumatic. And what started out with good intentions quickly goes awry.

A ludicrous example, but every time we blame educators for our children’s bad performance; intervene to prevent them from natural consequences; reward them for effort and performance even when effort and performance are sorely lacking; stop them from climbing and exploring to prevent bruises and scrapes; interfere when they are in an age-appropriate conflict…we are refusing to let go and let them fall.

We want to do whatever we can to remove the source of our children’s risk and discomfort. But discomfort is a natural part of being human. By intervening, we give them an unhealthy sense of entitlement – that they deserve a way out of their discomfort. They learn to solve problems through power (a parent’s influence) rather than through responsibility and acceptance. We intervene to prevent their physical and academic failure. But in doing so, they learn little about healthy growth and coping strategies.

Our children need to be supported and guided through their immediate discomfort in order to build coping skills.

Our children need to be supported and guided through their immediate discomfort in order to build coping skills. These skills, much like our toddler’s first steps, need persistence and practice, to become refined.

It is critical that we allow our children to take risks and fall when the price of falling is small - during their natural and ideal window for safely and appropriately developing these critical skills. They might get hurt. And they might feel uncomfortable. But as we coach them to reflect on their mistakes and try again, we are teaching them to be resilient and to grow.

As parents we have to take the time and effort to guide our children to contemplate: What did I do wrong that led me here? What could I do differently next time? What did I learn?

Every time they face a conflict, it is our job to guide them to resolve their own conflict; to become self-aware; to develop the skills to compromise, manage their emotions, and learn to see things from others’ perspectives.

The college admissions scandal is such an extreme distortion of parenting values; an example where parents saw no value in providing instruction to guide their children try, to fall and to get back up again…growing and learning through the natural process of selection. These parents saw no value in earned accomplishments or devastating setbacks. They saw no harm in robbing others of earned opportunities. And they saw no harm in sending the message: “I don’t believe in you,” to their children.

Our children might need to face a low grade, a missed recess or a real and hurtful disappointment. But these uncomfortable experiences lay a foundation for responsibility and accountability that will have a much more lasting effect on their lives.

In order for children to safely navigate the tumultuous stage of adolescence, which by nature is laden with risks and opportunities to fail, it is critical that they enter this phase having learned the skills of resilience, accountability, and responsibility; ways to manage their emotions; and regulate their behavior. Adolescence is a time when our children want to run. So, we better make darn sure they’ve already learned how to walk!

Let’s cut that umbilical cord once and for all, get out the Band-Aids, and suit up…because it’s time for us assume the roles of mentors and coaches, cheering and championing for our children as they practice becoming self-regulated, healthy and growth-minded adults.

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