We spotlight this country's unacceptable illiteracy rates and capacity for pumping kids out of our high schools unable to read, write, or recognize a periodic chart. We bemoan their futures, the lack of funding for our public schools and the high attrition rates of teachers worn down by overcrowded classrooms, bureaucracy, discipline issues, and parental neglect.
As valid as are these concerns, I am also alarmed by the lack of insight, commitment, and energy I see in an opposing segment of our population--advantaged students that I call "teens of means." As a consultant to families engaged in the college admissions process, the fact is that the majority of kids I assist attend well-to-do public and private schools. They live in upper-income communities and are supported by concerned, well-meaning parents who use every possible tool to mark a clear trail for their children; a path that moms and dads hope will guarantee a comfortable and trouble-free future. This elaborate structure of support is meant to inoculate children against failure, sting, and consequence.
The students I see live in large homes equipped with every imaginable electronic appliance and toy--DVDs, high-tech computers, HDTV, GameBoys, MP3 players, PalmPilots and cell phones. Many have cars. They are multitasking pros at an early age, unconsciously copying the frantic energy that drives the adults around them. Most have academic and test prep tutors. They have their own athletic coaches outside of school. I'm part of the line of valet services that forms a protective bubble around these teens.
Intelligent, involved, caring parents now begin stimulating infants in utero, fearing our unborn children will fall behind another nipper soaking up Mozart in the womb. As our children grow, this path of vigorous parental stimulation grows ever more intense as we compete for the most selective nursery, primary, and secondary schools. We occasionally recognize the absurdity of our frenzied involvement, but we also worry that a more laissez-fair attitude will result in our children being left a few ladder rungs behind. Professional parents compete and compare, evaluating the paths taken by other families and ensuring that our children are offered the same experiences and privileges. We seize opportunities for our kids rather than teach them how to seize their own.
As they grow older, we drive exhausted teens toward milestones of success ruled by grades, standardized test scores, and the ultimate mark of achievement these days--a brand-name college. Spent and busy parents expect me, their college consultant, to nag, drag and, if necessary, carry their reluctant, exhausted, and often passionless kids toward the finish line and a "top-tier" college. When I ask what would happen if their kids were left alone to complete this process without parental fuel driving them, they are often confused by my question. That's why, they say, they hired me. We, as parents, are surrounding our children with well-meaning, protective, and, ultimately, stifling cocoons of support.
There is no question that overprotection is preferable to no direction. But it, too, is destructive. I see many teens of means, both boys and girls, who have few interests and little idea how to pursue those mild passions they do have. Ironically, many are successful academically. Rarely, however, is their success driven by a quest for knowledge. Rather, they tie academic achievement to vocational and financial success. For kids as well as adults, sustaining their lifestyle of luxury is a key motivator.
It has become clear to me that by providing a protective bubble, we are, in fact, doing our children a disservice. Toddlers, who initially exercise their imaginations and play with unqualified joy in the sandbox, see their rough, idiosyncratic passions sanded down into a smooth, ordinary surface. Rather than honing their own sense of direction, parents of these teens of means have become a virtual GPS device that does it for them.
My conversations with students focus less on resume building and Ivy League admissions and more on developing a plan for identifying and exploring their interests. These conversations often turn philosophical as I attempt to capture the value of a future filled with passions that extend beyond GPAs, Gucci-label colleges, and homes and cars loaded with electronic gizmos. It is not a picture that many students grasp.
So, what's my recommendation? Let's move away from providing our children with airtight support and guidance. Let's also monitor when we set out the security net and hand our kids the responsibility that comes with making some difficult decisions and understanding the consequences that come with inaction. Admittedly, this is easier said than done. I find myself slipping into the pattern that I caution against--handing my children only safe experiences that promise a happy outcome. As I robotically unfurl the safety net, I remind myself that life's most important and worthy lessons often involve thin envelopes and a few belly flops.
William H. Caskey is an independent admissions consultant and a former Brown University (R.I.) admissions officer.