This post is the content of my recent newspaper column. Our community is 95% white and affluent; I hope to encourage those who live here (and myself) to live reflectively. We are good at seeking (and hoarding?) opportunities for our children but doing so without self-reflection leaves both those outside our community and the young people within it vulnerable.
I’ve closely followed the college admissions scandal involving Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman, and other wealthy families. Given the extreme measures today’s parents take to ensure the success of their children, the details of bribery, fraud, and money laundering aren’t shocking. And while it’s clear there’s a problem with the way wealth and power can influence admission into elite schools, it raises other concerns we need to consider: are we so focused on our kids attending the best colleges that we’re hoarding opportunities to the detriment of others? Is this even the definition of success we want to convey to our children?
I’m the first woman in my family to finish college, in no small part to my parent’s dedication. My dad—the son of German immigrant farmers—and mom both grew up poor and desired more for their kids. They believed academic success would translate to financial stability, empowerment, and result in happy, productive lives; a belief system I naturally adopted. I’ve always thought education and the American dream go hand in hand.
But achieving “the good life” today depends more on the financial success of one’s parents than it has in generations past. In other words, economic mobility has declined. Those born at the bottom are more likely to stay there, and vice versa. The college admissions scandal is an unfortunate example of this. Research shows that in the past three to four decades, the top 20% of wage earners in the US, (approximately $112,000 or more) have pulled away from the middle class and the poor in several key measures: income and wealth, educational attainment, family structure, geography, and health and longevity. The gap between rich and poor has widened and become harder and harder to bridge.
Where does this leave us, as a relatively affluent community of high achieving individuals that wants the same for our kids? Who wouldn’t do all they could to help their children succeed? Lori Loughlin is quoted as saying she “hadn’t done anything that any mom wouldn’t have done, if they had the means to do so.” Ah, but therein lies the rub, Aunt Becky. Very few have those kind of means.
Author Richard Reeves writes, “As parents, we naturally want our children to flourish. But that laudable desire slides into “opportunity hoarding” when we use our money, power or position to give our own children exclusive access to certain goods or chances. The effect is to strengthen class barriers.” We live like success is equally available to everyone even as we use our finances, power, and social capital to propel our own children to the top. I lean conservative and recoil at the idea of trying to orchestrate equal outcomes, but providing equal opportunity is what we should strive for as a society, and we’re falling woefully short right now.
And what is this win-at-all-costs regimen—with “winning” defined as getting into the best college possible so as to lead to career success—doing to our kids’ mental health and teaching them about our priorities? In David Brooks’ recent column in The New York Times he discusses an idea that drives many of our decisions about raising our kids: career success is fulfilling. He says, “This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.” We’re often parenting more for accomplishments than character.
I’ve been a college educator since 2005, and have noticed (and research supports) an increase in the levels of anxiety, depression, disordered eating, loneliness, and medication dependence in students. I hear similar concerns from teacher friends in jr. high and high school settings. Those being raised by successful parents trying to ensure their kids succeed are feeling stressed, isolated, and unfulfilled (yes, social media exacerbates the problem). Our kids will thrive when they understand that their value isn’t tied to achievements, and when they’re oriented towards a community mindset and the plight of others.
Reeves points out, “Opportunity hoarding does not result from the workings of a large machine but from the cumulative effect of individual choices and preferences. Taken in isolation, they may feel trivial: nudging your daughter into a better college with a legacy preference; helping the son of a professional contact to an internship; a single vote on a municipal council to retain low-density zoning restrictions. But, like many “micro-preferences”, to borrow a term from economist Thomas Schelling, they can have strong effects on overall culture and collective outcomes.”
I can’t tell you what steps to take, but I’m asking us all to consider: what is it we want to pass on to our children? If we’re motivated to keep our kids upwardly mobile without self-reflection, we’re bound to make unhealthy compromises. And if the college admissions scandal is the perfect example of going too far, I’ve become convinced there’s a fine line between giving our children a good future and opportunity hoarding—and as I’m realizing, opportunity hoarding isn’t neutral for our kids or communities.