In light of the admissions scandal, what is our true responsibility to teenagers?

Adolescence is a critical time, developmentally, for building a sense of identity. If all we ever focus on are the outcomes, academically and with extracurriculars, what can we expect other than increasingly unhealthy relationships and a winner-takes-all mentality?

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Imagine if we treated teenagers as people, not pariahs.
Imagine if we treated teenagers as people, not pariahs.

In a past life, I knew Rick Singer. When I moved across the country for my first job as a college counselor at a private school I had never done this before and it was Singer who urged me to go, who connected me with the school. I coached NCAA men’s water polo and completed my Master’s degree in Higher Education Administration, so the work aligned with my interests and skillset even though the particulars of this job were new. Within a year I had left the school, left Singer, and gone on my own. From the perch of that short-lived relationship with a man who wanted nothing more than to sell fear to families, I found myself in other people’s homes, as a member of their extended circle of support, eating dinners, sharing celebrations, and peering into parent/child dynamics. I became keen to understand each distinct family and the relationship characteristics they valued most. There were more similarities than differences. One issue became glaring, though, as I listened and worked with families and gave talks to groups of parents: our fundamental conflict with kids when they reach adolescence creates the illusion of a wedge that we have made insurmountable. On a regular basis, so many people say something to me along the lines of “your girls are so great now but just wait until they’re teenagers”. Statements such as this are toxic. I understand the high-stakes mentality around education and our children. Indeed, this has only heightened since I made that first move, 15 years ago. Even then the point was to get the kids into schools, as opposed to foster their capability to navigate this transition or to contribute to their university communities as intellectual and social partners. 

In South Florida, I began to work with a lot of Latin American families and within a few years was recognized as an expert in this field of college counseling. The more I took on Latin American families, the further removed I became from the reality of the struggle within US households, built almost single-handedly around the pressures of college admission and how that manifests throughout everything from youth sports to academic summer camps. Entire neighborhoods and public schools were like an academic arms race; all students were either too far behind or not far enough ahead to guarantee anything. From this premise, focused intently on outcomes, our teenagers will always fail. When an end result trumps all else we get a system that is, at its core, unequal. Why should top boarding schools have dozens of graduates every year heading off to the most competitive universities while hundreds of public schools don’t have a single pupil gain admission?

Our focus on outcome is not only unhealthy for the kids, but for the parents, too. The dynamic within a family is conflict-oriented when expectations are created at the whim of a parent, without consent or even consideration of the child. I recently did a (not very scientific) exercise with a group of about 70 parents and their teens. I asked the parents to visualize what makes them most happy and then asked them how often they permit themselves the opportunity to engage in that activity. Most said “every day” or “as often as possible”. I then asked the teenagers to picture what makes them happiest and for their parents to picture when they see their teenagers happiest. We went on to discuss how often the teenagers get to engage in their “happy activity”, to which most responded with answers such as “almost never”, “if I get all my work done then I might be allowed”, or “I don’t have time anymore”. Worse yet, when I asked the parents to confer with their kids about what each visualized, guess how many parents had been spot-on? If you said a number between 1 and 3, you would be correct.

These families, and many just like them, have shaped my understanding of- and philosophy about- parenting. What is obvious is that we are not as attuned to our children as we think. What is less obvious is that we do not even care to realize quite how detached from the pursuit of health and happiness we have encouraged them to become. Yet, the truth has to be clear and could not be more relevant than this current moment: we raise our children for the world not for ourselves. We must stray from the concept of kids as products, branded and packaged. Instead, we have to teach them the importance and value of learning, not just studying. We must encourage them greatly and let them know the love they have from their parents is unconditional. Love, not resources. The latter does not substitute the former.

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