Imagine this scenario: It’s a Tuesday evening and you’re just home from work, still panting from the subway ride, when you determine without doubt that your fourth-grader has lice. The teeny pale eggs, they could be dandruff, but they’re not; ugh, dozens of them, everywhere, clinging to the silky hairs, and all you can think is, Not tonight.
Having been through this before, you know that the only way to help arrest a schoolwide epidemic is to spend hours, three at least, dealing with the vermin right now—combing, vacuuming, washing, drying—not including the inter-spousal fighting and the hysterical kid meltdown that invariably accompanies such an outbreak. Which puts bedtime conservatively somewhere around 11 p.m.
And tonight, of all nights, you just can’t afford the drama. You can’t. Because tomorrow is the ELA, the statewide reading-and-writing test whose scores in this crucial year will help to determine your kid’s middle-school placement, and sending her into the exam emotionally wrung out and insufficiently rested is not an option. It is not.
So here is what you do. You pretend that you didn’t see what you saw, that the lice don’t exist. You fill your child’s mind with calm, positive, and confident test-taking thoughts as you put her to bed early. That you are potentially contaminating 26 other children in her class—costing their families untold hours of anguish and lost work, and thousands of dollars in dry cleaning—by sending your lice-ridden kid to school creates a gnawing sensation in your gut, but this is not a sufficient deterrent. The lice can wait, and the test cannot; in a contest between your kid’s near-term success and her classmates’ longer-term (and let’s face it, uncertain) pain, your kid wins. Besides, you tell yourself, layering rationale upon rationale, one of them gave it to her.
But your child is no fool. She knows she has lice, and she knows what tomorrow is. For her, the takeaway goes something like this: Always be kind and considerate of others, except in those cases where consideration impedes your own self-interest or convenience. Then, take care of yourself.
Parenthood, like war, is a state in which it’s impossible to be moral. Worse, the moral weakness of parents is always on display, for children bear witness to their incessant ethical hairsplitting. It may be delicious fun to tut-tut over the corrupt child-rearing customs (and to pity the progeny) of the aggressively rising class: the mother who, according to Urban Baby legend, slept with the admissions officer (with her husband’s consent!) to get her child into the Ivy League, or the one who sued an Upper East Side preschool for insufficiently preparing her 4-year-old for a private-school test. But such Schadenfreude elides a more difficult existential truth, which is that ever since Noah installed his own three sons upon the ark and left the rest of the world to drown, protecting and privileging one’s own kids at the expense of other people has been the name of the game. It’s what parents do.
Every hour, it seems, a parent is given the opportunity to choose between her child and a greater good, and in those moments the primal parental impulse can be overpowering. “If some science-fiction sorcerer came to me with a button,” writes the philosopher Stephen Asma in his 2012 book Against Fairness, “and said I could save my son’s life by pressing it but then (cue the dissonant music) ten strangers would die somewhere … I’d have my finger down on it before he finished his cryptic challenge.”
So while the kiddie race to the top among the most competitive people may elicit the most grotesque behaviors, the fact is that all kinds of parents seize advantage for their kids when they can. (Jeff Zucker’s 15-year-old son somehow found his way onto the advisory board of Cory Booker’s tech start-up. If you could rustle up something similarly high-flying for your kid, wouldn’t you be tempted?) In fact, the very state of being a parent obscures clear ethical reasoning, creating blinders, explains the Duke University dishonesty expert Dan Ariely, “as to what’s moral and not moral.” The same person who would never lie on his own résumé may lie on his kid’s school application and feel that “they’re doing something for a good cause, that they’re actually being altruistic.”
Why else would an otherwise conscientious couple decide to hold their perfectly normal kid back a year, except that she’ll be that much older than the other kids in the class and thus that much better at sitting still during tests? Why else does a father volunteer to coach Little League and then put his son in the cleanup spot? Why else do parents do their children’s homework night after night, except that they fear that without the “help,” the kids would fail or falter or fall behind? Parents instruct their children to “get what they get and don’t get upset”—and then they beg and bribe the adults in their children’s lives, haranguing teachers for better grades and theater directors for bigger parts and clergy for “the best” assignment in the soup kitchen, and they curry favor (they hope) with foil-wrapped bottles or hard-to-get tickets at Christmastime. In the interest of giving kids “a leg up,” parents will do almost anything: They’ll call friends on the board; they’ll pull strings to procure internships; they’ll invite the coach over for dinner; they’ll claim strong adherence to a religion or an ethnic identity that is, in fact, weak; they’ll fake recommendation letters; they’ll neutralize their child’s competition for a spot on the hockey team by whispering something about someone’s alcohol use; and they’ll administer the occasional misbegotten tablet of Adderall. The ultimate litmus test in New York City is this one: How many good people do you know who have lied about their address to get their kids into the better public school? And are you more or less sympathetic if that person is a hedge-fund manager or his nanny?
Parenthood means you cannot possibly behave as though society’s rules and norms apply equally to all. Anthony Gray, who runs the Institute for Global Ethics in Maine, says the most difficult moral choices are those in which a person is faced with “two or more legitimate rights in dynamic tension.” On the one hand, there are your child’s health, résumé, self-esteem, and future opportunity, and on the other, there are other people’s children, the rules of a community, and the need for your own child to learn hard lessons about self-sufficiency, responsibility, struggle, honesty, and failure. “It is good, it is right, to want your child to do well in school and to get into a competitive college and launch their life into adulthood. It’s right to help your kids with homework,” explains Gray, parsing the dilemma. “It’s also right to teach your child the importance of truthfulness. And to avoid direct conflicts of interest.” A decision-making process is taught at the institute that Gray calls “reflective reasoning,” which religious people might call “discernment,” a tuning in to one’s conscience to discover the higher right and then summoning what he calls moral courage to act accordingly. But when an entire culture is clamoring to get theirs, that clear, small voice can be difficult to hear.
“It’s the opposite of the free-rider problem,” the Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz explains: If everybody recycles, then you can be the one person who doesn’t, and you still benefit from all the recycling that goes on. But if everybody is occupied full time making sure their kid wins and other kids lose, then taking the high road doesn’t serve you at all. “It’s a corrupt system, and your opting out won’t change it. You gain nothing, and you lose a lot.”
Though invariably proud of their children, parents are not always so proud of themselves. I know a man who does SAT tutoring for the children of Manhattan’s private-school elite, charging families $22,000 per child per year, and every time he meets a new client, he says, the mother sheepishly pulls him aside in the foyer and says, “We’re not like this.” We’re not the kind of people who spend tens of thousands of dollars on tutoring, except here we are doing it. (Because of rampant prepping, the Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York recently announced it was ceasing to recommend the ERB, the standardized test, as a valid measure of preparedness for kindergarten.)
Jason Stephens is an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut who studies cheating among adolescents and is interested in what he calls the “judgment-action gap”: why high-school students cheat, even when they know it’s wrong. Parents, he says, are displaying a similar disconnect, seizing advantage for their children while discounting the gnawing feeling in their gut. It’s like a drug addiction, Stephens says. Each infraction may, in itself, be relatively small, but the effects are cumulative. “It’s a culture,” says Stephens. “It’s not hard to see how parents can justify this behavior—they’re just prioritizing other values and goals, the child’s well-being over the greater good. It means more to me that they get the leg up than if I have to lie a little bit. Now that I’ve done the wrong thing, I have to not feel guilty. I don’t want to run around feeling like a shmuck. I rationalize it, I justify it, I diffuse my responsibility. Hey, it’s not my fault, this is a cultural thing.” As when watching a parent drink three glasses of wine at dinner, a child begins to regard this behavior as ordinary, and then, Stephens says, “it comes to define who they are.”
Most parents don’t think of themselves as the kind of people who prize winning above all. Most hope to teach their kids what used to be called “good values,” which a previous generation learned in scouts or church: kindness and compassion, respect and responsibility, to “do unto others” and be grateful for small things. But how are children supposed to learn honesty and fairness when the parents are yelling at the coach to give Johnny more playing time? Or wrangling behind the scenes to get Susie into a particular day care? Put another way: By advantaging kids at every turn, are parents, in fact, laming them? Are they (we, for I have a 9-year-old daughter) raising children they may not ultimately want as colleagues, neighbors, or friends? “You can preach and you can preach,” says Audrey Kindred, director of family programming at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, “you can tell and you can tell, but we all learn primarily by example. There is something about what we’re not intending that seeps through much stronger than what we are intending.” My father told me not to smoke, and then he stole my cigarettes and smoked them himself: I was a smoker for nearly 25 years.
Meet Anna Blum, 18 years old and every parent’s fantasy. In conversation, she is earnest, thoughtful, articulate, conscientious. She just graduated from Fieldston with honors grades and is now at Vassar, where she hopes to major in film studies. While in high school, she co-edited the Fieldston News, scored high on her SATs, and spent the summer interning at a nonprofit. Anna has her own website, where she posts the films she’s made and the poems she’s written and where she cites as role models Andy Warhol—and her own mother.
But Anna worries that she and her peers are a little bit lost when it comes to sorting right from wrong. When a friend told her, for example, that she took Adderall to enhance her performance on the SATs, she was, initially, shocked. “I’ll say, ‘That’s really wrong.’ And then I think, I had a very expensive SAT tutor. I haven’t done Adderall, but it’s sort of hard to see where the line is.”
The parents of her peers have one main goal, says Anna, which is to get their kids into a good college. And the two-track ethical system they teach follows from there. “The culture among parents is they say this is right and this is wrong,” Anna explains, but at the same time the parents always defend their own behavior as right.
Anna frets about what she and her friends will do when college is over and they’re forced to navigate real life. Everyone says you can’t get through medical school without using prescription drugs to stay awake. Everyone says a liberal-arts degree will make you unemployable unless you pull strings. “Once that becomes normal, baseline, that’s a shift we should be avoiding at all costs. If you weren’t raised a certain way, you have zero chance of making this work. To know that there’s one specific route to go down and it’s a really upsetting route, it’s very frightening to me.”
All the data show a generation far less ethical than their parents. According to a 2009 survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 51 percent of people age 17 or under agree that to get ahead, a person must lie or cheat, compared with 18 percent of people ages 25 to 40. Two years later, in another Josephson survey, 57 percent of high-schoolers agreed that “in the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.” Younger people are likelier than their elders to lie to parents, spouses, and bosses and to keep the change if a cashier makes an error in their favor.
But what Anna’s talking about is something slipperier than blatant cheating, a cut below sneaking answers into an exam, a hazy space where right and wrong seem porous. According to research by Denise Pope at Challenge Success, a nonprofit founded at Stanford, 95 percent of eleventh- and twelfth-graders say they have cheated in the past year, and a huge percentage of high-schoolers think that certain kinds of cheating are no big deal. Sixty-six percent, for example, say that receiving unpermitted help on an assignment is either not cheating or is cheating so unimportant that it barely counts. (Could this be payback for all those nights when you caved and helped your kid fill in the blanks on her math-facts drills?) Fifty-two percent say that copying a couple of sentences from someone else’s work is a trivial thing.
There’s lots of room to wiggle here. Especially when the transgressions get you where you want to be. Justifications are easier when the result of questionable behavior is the yearned-for A or the starring role or field position. “I don’t think they see their parents’ maneuvering as wrong. They assume that’s what it means to be in school,” a private-middle-school teacher told me. Watching their parents pull strings and bend rules on their behalf can prepare the kids for a vision of success in which winning is a zero-sum game, she says. “They learn how you do backdoor deals. How you do the meeting before the meeting and the meeting after the meeting.” They are invested in the way things are, an unequal system in which they are on top.
Social psychologists have demonstrated that rich people are likelier than poorer ones to lie, cheat, and disregard traffic rules and, more recently, that they are likelier to believe that social status is a matter of merit. (A study published in August in the Personality and Social Psychology bulletin showed that the wealthier a person is, the more he or she will agree with the following statement: “I honestly feel I’m just more deserving than other people.”) So while all parents may ruthlessly put their children ahead of others, the children of affluent parents may be likelier to believe that ends justify means. A Harvard grad who was implicated in the university’s 2012 cheating scandal (in which scores of students submitted similar or verbatim answers on a take-home final) complained to Businessweek about the inconvenience of having to cooperate with the university’s ongoing investigation. “Dragging us into this … now, when we have financial obligations and jobs, seems very unfair.”
I spoke at length to an administrator at a prestigious private school who talked about the damage done to children’s sense of self when their parents (overtly or covertly) contradict a school’s purpose and values. At good schools, for example, the college counselors know the kids. They know the colleges. They compile lists of prospective schools with the kids’ best interests at heart. But the parents, unsatisfied, hire a private college counselor, who makes a different list of schools—along with different things the kid needs to do to get in. And the child is put in an impossible position of having to pretend to want both things. “You’re asking the child not to passively accept this, but to actively talk out of two sides of his mouth. This goes to a kid’s core identity. Who am I? How am I representing myself?,” this administrator says. “And the result is a kind of cynicism. There’s nothing like cynicism to prevent an authentic development of self. It’s the ultimate defense against meaning and purpose.”
But the kids who learn the lesson of cynicism may in fact suffer less than those who don’t. What parents are really telling children with their constant intervening is that there’s no way for them to succeed on their own, says Harold Koplewicz, a founder of the Child Mind Institute. “The message to the kid is, You aren’t good enough.” He compares these parents to “fixers,” who illicitly manipulate outcomes for their clients. In their effort to build their children’s success, parents may actually be short-circuiting their self-esteem, and stunting their self-efficacy, making them unable to tell the difference between the things they can accomplish in the world, with the application of hard work and native ability, and the things they cannot. Jason Stevens is somewhat blunter. A fixing parent can make a child, he says, “crippled. Or entitled. Or both.”
Here’s my excuse, and I presume it’s yours, too. It’s tough out there. The future is uncertain, and no one knows what skills kids will need to get by in war or warming or economic collapse. The accoutrements of middle-class stability and comfort feel like they’re slipping away, even to those of us living smack in the middle of them.
The urge to ferociously protect kids in an environment of scarce resources is not a modern impulse but an animal one. Bonobos are some of the most openhearted creatures on Earth. They care for one another’s children; they have sex all the time. But chimpanzees, to whom bonobos are closely related, are venal: They’re hierarchical, aggressive, and mean. A chimp mother will, when it suits her, kill another mother’s child. The difference is scarcity. Bonobos live in a region of the Congo where there’s always enough to eat. Chimps live in regions where food is seasonal, and competition for it is fierce. Humans are primates, too.
But in unexpected places, a countermovement may be gathering strength, led by people who understand that humans can—and do—rise above their animal instincts. And the agents of this backlash are most often not brave parents but their more stubbornly idealistic children. “I know kids,” says Pope, “who are absolutely mortified when their parents cheat the system. They’re embarrassed and ashamed.”
I know a young man who, on moral grounds, steadfastly refused to enlist the help of an SAT tutor or indeed do any test prep during his overheated senior fall at a private school whose name you know. The college-application system is broken and corrupt, the kid said. “I could sense around me this horrible stress and this defeated feeling,” he told me. “The more prep you take, the more tutoring you do, the better your scores. It seemed like a gross system. I didn’t want what I was doing to be determined by it. I didn’t want to play their game. I wanted to play my game.”
For a season, his parents walked a tightrope strung between loving support of their son’s moral stance and perpetual anxiety that he was throwing his life away. At least, the father advised, make a virtue of your stand and explain to the admissions officers your objections to this process. “He said if I have a better way of doing it, I better damn well show that I do.” But the kid refused to do that, too. “My parents are wonderful people, and they knew that this was a big moment in my life,” he recalls. “They were honest about their anxiety and the situation we were all in together.”
Does this story have a happy ending? The kid didn’t get into any college and lived at home, working, until it was time to apply again. (At which point he still blew off SAT prep, feeling that the test he’d already taken was preparation enough.) But he learned something about himself, which was that he really did want to go to college, and now he’s happily studying classes at a school not in the U.S. News top 50, composing electronic music that would blow your mind.