Parental Self-Justification and the College Admissions Scandal

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By now, you’ve likely heard about the indictment of wealthy actresses and executives over the college acceptance scam being referred to as Operation Varsity Blues. Millions of dollars in bribes have been funneled through private college counseling services to college administrators, college admittance testing administrators, and college coaches. In many of the incidents, resumes were fabricated, even fake photos produced of sports participation, all in effort to be accepted into top universities. For instance, actress Lori Loughlin’s (known for her role in “Full House”) daughters were admitted into the University of Southern California as crew team recruits, a sport neither girl is actually associated with.

In other cases, there were large bribes, or applicants were allowed to take a college entrance exam alone with a private proctor. What’s more is that, in most instances, the students had no awareness of their parents’ acting on their behalf. “The parents are the prime movers of this fraud,” Andrew E. Lelling (United States attorney for the District of Massachusetts) said Tuesday during a news conference.

As a mom with a child struggling to get his ACT score up, I can only imagine how helpful all of this plotting might be! Instead, we’ve scratched numerous universities off the prospect list because he is just not going to meet certain admissions requirements. A similar lack of academic aptitude does not appear to be a hinderance for these folks paying the big buck to cheat their kids in. And while most of what I’ve read about the scandal hinges on the audacity of wealthy people unethically circumventing the law for their gain (certainly worthy of discussion and problematic), there is more going on at the root.

Like I said, I have a son at this stage, another one right behind him, and a daughter already in college. I am surrounded by talk of college, and the perpetual resume boosting. Kids join clubs they may only show up for in the yearbook picture. They volunteer out of duty, and take AP courses in every subject. It’s a wonder they have time with all the travel for their competitive club sports. (Is it that surprising our kids are so stressed out?) But driving the obsession with performance, even beyond getting into college, is our need as parents to be justified – to feel our worth.

To that end, the reason the accused willingly lied and cheated hinges on the status they derive from their kids’ accomplishments. Well, the perceived accomplishments of their kids. And don’t we do the same? Don’t we look to our kids’ accomplishments as our badge of honor? As affirmation that we are somebody? At the very least, a “successful parent.” As twisted as it is, we are deriving our worth from our kids. They look good, we look good.

In no way am I defending what they did, but while we look upon these “Varsity Blues” parents in disgust, “let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7). How they acted is simply telling of what is most valuable to them, and what they are looking to find value in. Again, do we not do the same in the way we elevate our children as status symbols?

We get on Facebook to gush over their accomplishments when they do well, but quietly sink down in our seats when our child messes up out on the field. Embarassingly, I even remember a few years ago thinking I was glad my daughter could attend the National Honor Society induction so that everyone could see she got in. But not just for herself, for me – it made me look good too, you know? Twisted.

Or, what about the parent whose child isn’t pursuing a four-year college degree? I know a few and it’s a real struggle because they worry how others view them and their child. The temptation is to want to offer extra explanation as a means of justification. Something like, “She was accepted into X, Y, and Z colleges but decided instead to follow her passion” to make it sound noble. Carrying it a step beyond college, I see the same thing happening when it comes to our grown children’s careers. We beam with pride over our daughter being admitted to med school or our son’s new job in New York City. This is not wrong in and of itself, but they become false identities when we look upon their accomplishments as if it makes them and us more worthy.

More worthy of what, though? Accolades? Job well-done? I foresee the next thing we will look to will come with our children’s future spouses and then our grandchildren. It’s never-ending and it’s never fully fulfilling. We (or they) have to keep succeeding. Until we get that it’s not about our work.

To borrow a favorite phrase of my husband’s, “It’s hevel.” Hevel in Hebrew is meaningless. Looking to find our identity in our status, our wealth, our position, our occupation, our performance, appearance, accomplishments or any of these same things in our kids is HEVEL. It can’t fill us, or give us the identity we long for.

The only way out of this twisted thinking is to find our true identity and justification wrapped up in Jesus. When we know our security in his work and worth for us, when we know we have his smile, we don’t have to have the smartest kids, the best job, or the most beautiful home. We don’t have to pad our kids’ resumes, spend every weekend traveling with the best club team, or pay for our child to go to tutors every night in order to stay in advanced classes. In fact, two of the most freeing things we’ve done is say no to club sports and drop our boys out of advanced math. Neither were worth the stress on our family, and since our worth isn’t dependent on it we’ve never looked back.

As saddened as I am by reports of the “Varsity Blues” scandal, it doesn’t shock me. We will go to extreme measures to look for affirmation anywhere and everywhere we can grab it when we don’t know we have it secure in Christ. But when we know his perfect love and acceptance of us, we don’t need false sources to add to our worth. This is what I want most for my kids to know. To me, if that’s all their resumes said, there is nothing that would make me more proud.

 

 

 

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