Operation Varsity Blues and the Challenges of Parenting

October 8, 2019

Recently, the actor Felicity Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison for her role in a plan to enhance her daughter’s SAT score as part of the “Operation Varsity Blues” college admission scandal. This provokes important questions about fame, class, race, meritocracy, jurisprudence, and higher education—and analysts have been appropriately assertive in answering these questions. But her crime also says something about how we understand our love for our children. Huffman does not deserve our sympathy, in my judgment, and I would not suggest that her offenses were either typical or justifiable. At the same time, she might represent not just outsized entitlement, but also a temptation familiar to all mothers and fathers.

As parents, we know that there is virtue in struggle, and even in failure, for our children. We conceptually approve of a “growth mindset” or the “blessings of a skinned knee,” and may even learn to quote Samuel Beckett. (“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”) But what we know and what we feel are often quite different matters, and I suspect that every mom and dad can identify with the hurt of watching our kids endure even short-term hardships and disappointments. None of us is inclined to skirt a rule or fix an outcome, but we can recognize the inclination to swoop in and rescue our child from a difficult situation.

None of us is inclined to skirt a rule or fix an outcome, but we can recognize the inclination to swoop in and rescue our child from a difficult situation.
— Head of School Dr. John M. Botti

As a teacher for over two decades, I saw this temptation enacted in a variety of ways: Boys who were consistently called in sick by their parents on test days; essays that began as original work but were eventually “polished” by a tutor; parental requests for retakes after a failed low-stakes reading quiz in the early days of the semester. I certainly get the intentions behind these impulses. As a father myself, I have certainly felt the impulse to intervene, however slightly, to ease my child’s way. But there are real risks to such interventions, which jeopardize the long-term benefits that come from nurturing our kids’ capacity to learn, grow, and persevere on their own. And, sadder still, we may imperil the very relationship we are trying to sustain by showing our sons that, ultimately, we do not trust them to create their own success, or to recover from a misstep.   

Not that all parents are Felicity Huffmans in waiting, and aspiring to gain entrance to selective collegiate institutions is a worthy goal. The point is not that any attempt to assist our children is illegitimate. But we can use the Huffman situation to recognize anew that the greatest gifts we offer our children are not the elimination of obstacles or the guarantee of positive outcomes, but rather the honesty, belief, and care required for them to discover their own abilities to grow. We will always worry about our sons, but we do best by them when we put our faith in the value of formative experiences. We must trust that they--with the support of the adults in their lives who care about them, at Browning and beyond--will use these experiences to create the autonomy, resilience, and wisdom they will need to lead lives of purpose and fulfillment.