Not so long ago, a student of mine wanted a little help on a paper. She opened her laptop and together we had a look. At the end of the first paragraph, I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Many teenagers today,” she’d written, “take their parents for granite.” And how lucky those teenagers are, I sat there thinking.
For a few decades now, I’ve spent my weekdays in a high school classroom. I’ve witnessed in action superb and not-so-superb parents and every genus of tiger, helicopter, and snowplow. Among their children one sees exasperations large and small, slow-motion disasters, forlorn surrender, thwarted dreams but also shining enthusiasm, astounding achievement, quiet confidence worn lightly, and much happiness. Inevitably, it comes back to this: Good parents are taken for granite, the bedrock on which sturdy young lives are built.
If the allegations are true, those mothers and fathers charged with lying, cheating, and bribery in the recent college admissions scandal deserve what they have coming. With platinum smirks, they broke laws and violated the imperfect but painstaking process those venerable institutions employ to advance the deserving. Worse, they betrayed their children. Even those who hit the brakes before careering into the felonious can be guilty of a milder version of the same thing.
At home my wife and I have helped three children navigate adolescence, with a fourth still in the thick of it. As both father and teacher I’ve sat through sporting events, back-to-school nights, parent-teacher conferences, and college fret-fests beyond counting. Anxiousness abounds. Even the highly accomplished, supremely capable college aspirant will agonize about everything. Song of Solomon pop quizzes become subjects of trembling anguish. A B+ on a history paper is ruinous. A swing and a miss with the National Honor Society is a flipping catastrophe. I mean, c’mon, for the good colleges, the really good ones . . . you have to be, like, hyper-deluxe-uber-exceptional. Meanwhile, it’s a statistical reality that most of us are average. Many parents find this difficult to accept. Some don’t accept it at all. And their children are watching.
Intercede when the child should step up and you’re denying him or her the benefits of struggle and perseverance. Clear the way and you’re saying you don’t have a lot of faith in your child. You’re saying discovery, learning, and growth matter less than appearing impressive. Even an appropriate helping hand can strike a teenager as disparagement and validation of already-felt anxiety. And rather than encouraging children to explore a little and develop some interests, or simply bear down and be the best version of themselves they can manage, misguided parents will shoulder in and try to alchemize them into “what colleges are looking for.” With a certain pride, many parents will call being obnoxious a price they’re willing to pay. They think they’re being fierce. The collateral damage can be severe.
Complicating all this is the fact that parents love their children, even the knuckleheads, and will do for them what they can. Here — surprise, surprise — the well-heeled enjoy advantages, many of which translate directly into a factual leg up on the competition for access to, and paying tuition for, elite and hugely expensive colleges and universities. According to a recent study, for example, 19 percent of the students at Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale — the last of which was tainted by the cheating scheme — come from the wealthiest 1 percent of the population. At Dartmouth 21 percent of students do. At each of these same schools, less than 5 percent of students come from the poorest 20 percent of the population.
Again and again, though, what the kids I see want from their parents, what they need, is a simple but bulletproof belief in them, and steadiness, a sense of perspective, encouragement, reliable wisdom, and principles on which to build. Bedrock. The doing well in school part, and the getting into college, elite or otherwise, the sturdy ones would like to handle pretty much on their own. Certainly no kid wants, nor should want, to be clawed at, hovered over, dragged along behind . . . or bribed for.
Even under the sunniest circumstances, the moment “parent” becomes a verb, teenagers know they’re in tricky waters. Resistance starts to feel like self-preservation. Questions of identity come into play. Rather than being the object of strategy and tactics, however well intended, a teenager should instead be given room to exercise a little self-reliance. Let outcomes be what they will. To the child, this feels like respect, a central component of love. He or she will shoulder responsibility, which is good for the backbone, and the parent will recognize emergent strengths of character and habits of mind that tend to bear fruit. Generally, a parent nurtures these most effectively with clear boundaries, subtle guidance, reasonable affirmations, and patience —but mostly just by being an honorable person.
The most popular course across all of Yale’s long and storied (and recently blemished) history is one about happiness. Apparently there’s a need. I wonder how many of those compelled to enroll take their parents for granite.David McCullough Jr. is a teacher at Wellesley High School and the author of “You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.