“What school is your child going to?”
No other question (other than perhaps “Do you have a reliable babysitter?”) is uttered more frequently at playgroups and birthday parties. And none evokes more anxiety. Most parents are well aware of the pressures of school choices. This parental one-upsmanship starts in preschool and grows with the child.
Why does it matter so much? Is it because we want the world to know that our child is so beguiling that he can get into XYZ Preschool? Or that her SAT scores were so off the charts that all the Ivies are knocking down our doors? Or is it because these school choices really matter to our kids’ futures?
The recent college-admission scandal has brought these questions to the top of our collective parental minds.
“It hits people right in the stomach,” says Lara Fielding, Psy.D., author of “Mastering Adulthood: Go Beyond Adulting to Become an Emotional Grown-up.” “It just stinks of the entitlement that our American culture kind of hates.” And Fielding says the recent scandals involving bribery and cheating to get kids into colleges reflect one of the biggest mistakes we can make as parents: fixing short-term anxieties.
Fielding says there’s something that feels really good about lowering a child’s anxiety, so oftentimes, you keep repeating the behavior. But going to extremes and solving all of our kids’ problems robs them of vital skills that they need to develop by learning from their own discomfort. “I was, in a way, happy to see this scandal break, hoping maybe now this would be the final red flag. Can you see what you’re doing? Why your kids are ending up in my office so often?” says Fielding, who has a practice in Beverly Hills, California.
But how do we, as involved and concerned parents, avoid these traps and find balance? How do we manage our anxieties about whether our children are going to get into college, find rewarding careers and, ultimately, become happy, productive adults?
We have to decide what our guiding values are as parents and stop listening to the “mind chatter,” as Fielding calls it. “All that mind chatter is a reaction to social comparisons,” she says, “and not consistent to your values.” She recommends using mindfulness techniques when you’re starting to spiral in on whether you feel you’re doing enough for your child or are comparing yourself to another parent’s experiences: Pull yourself back into the present and remember that these thoughts are just thoughts, not facts.
Not all kids are at the top of their class. Or care about school. Or are dying to attend a top-tier college. Those issues often feed into a parent’s anxiety and can lead to the temptation to cheat or buy your way in.
But receiving a rejection letter from a dream school or not achieving a high SAT score can be its own lesson in resilience, and swooping in to rescue your child from disappointment can be a disservice. Remember, Fielding says, that “doing things to help your child feel good short-term is sort of like picking up the crack pipe.”
She stresses that your child’s academic life is only a piece of the big picture of who they are. “It always comes back to those values as a family,” she says. “All we can do is mind our side of that fence and do the best we can to live a vital and fulfilling life, which comes from being consistent to our own true north.”
So the next time you get asked that all-important question, answer it with confidence, knowing that it’s not about the school, but rather about the human being that you’re raising.