Are We Teaching Our Children To Cheat? Or Worse?

With a broad, illuminating and discomforting brush, Lisa Miller’s written-to-be-controversial article in New York Magazine this week paints parents as ethically challenged at best and downright venal at worst. Their crime? Helping their children “get ahead”.

Miller looks at modern parenting through an evolutionary lens, noting that at times of scarcity parents will cheat, steal and worse to provide for their offspring, and uses that as an explanation of everything from red-shirting in kindergarten to SAT tutoring in high school.

“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,” she writes, and the 21st century version of the flood is admission into preschool/college/a good job.

“Why else,” she asks, “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... 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... 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.”

I object.

Not to Miller’s larger point that parents are teaching their children inadvertent lessons with this behavior (we are), but rather to the lumping together of examples in such a way as to dilute her message.

First point, as Jessica Grose put it so well in Slate today, Miller’s examples ring true mostly on the coasts, which isn’t most of the country. “I don’t think raising children in most places is as cutthroat, nasty and, yes, unethical as it is in New York City,” Grose writes.

Second, by equating acts like “inviting the coach to dinner” with “faking recommendation letters” Miller undermines her own argument. Parents persuade themselves that these little short-cuts and legs up aren’t all that big a deal, she says -- but many of her own examples really AREN’T that big a deal, and certainly not by comparison to the others.

Miller's central message is that this elbowing by parents is wrong because it is unfair, and therefore harmful, to others. Much more compelling, though, is a point she makes more obliquely: that the determination of parents to do anything and everything that is best for their kids, actually harms children more than it helps.

“By advantaging kids at every turn, are parents, in fact, laming them?” she asks, then answers in the positive, saying: “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.”

After all, the more blatant examples -- doing a child’s schoolwork for them, outright faking an ADD diagnosis to score medication or extra test-time -- are things everyone agrees is wrong, even the guilty parent. It’s the murkier acts -- really believing that your child would do better if held back a year, making a call to a friend who could provide a summer internship, hiring a tutor -- that are far more interesting (and familiar) to the average parent.

In the same way, the fact that baldfaced lying and cheating is a bad example to our kids is hardly news to anyone, including those who do it. But the more nuanced message that we are actually hurting our kids with the very acts we are doing to help them -- that is something we all need to hear and ponder. Miller calls this “something slipperier than blatant cheating, a cut below sneaking answers into an exam, a hazy space where right and wrong seem porous.”

And that is the territory we need to focus on, not because it is headline-grabbing-outrageous, but because it doesn’t feel the least bit wrong at all.