A Therapist’s Perspective on Operation Varsity Blues

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As a Manhattan based psychotherapist who treats high-achieving families, I feel for the teens entangled in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal that unfolded this past spring. ​Although they have every advantage because of their privilege, they are also emotionally deprived​. Their parents’ choices have taken away experiences that are essential for them to achieve ​authentic success. Each week I see highly educated, well-intended parents whose explicit parenting goal is
for their teens to be happy, fulfilled, and satisfied adults. Unfortunately, their efforts create a
paradoxical outcome—their kids often grow up to feel empty, inadequate, and incapable.

How does this happen?

To understand why removing obstacles from your teen’s path can impede healthy growth,
imagine a toddler learning how to walk. He is internally motivated to stand upright and try to walk. Each step requires that he develop a ​tolerance for frustration​ as he challenges himself to stand, stumble, get back up, and try again. Through this process, the toddler experiences
disappointment, determination, and then a gradual sense of mastery and exhilaration. With time
and practice, his confidence and skills grow until he eventually walks on his own.

A healthy parent will watch her child struggle to reach this developmental milestone. She’ll
excitedly observe her child’s process and progress, and encourage him. Although he may express frustration and disappointment, ​she has faith in her child’s innate ability​ to learn to walk. She
doesn’t compare him to others, but rather lets him reach this developmental milestone in his own
way and at his own pace.

On the other hand, a parent who can’t tolerate their toddler’s struggles might scoop him up when
he falls, carry him more often, or hire someone to teach him how to walk faster. If the child is
prevented from walking, or pushed by an external party to go beyond what he’s developmentally
ready to do, he’ll be deprived of experiencing mastery and self-efficacy. His internal motivation,
problem-solving skills, and desire to explore the unknown will weaken. Inadvertently, his
parents will have taught him that he is incapable of accomplishing anything on his own and he
needs his parent’s help, or an outside expert’s assistance to succeed.

Paying someone to take a teen’s entrance exam, or to write their essay conveys two damaging
emotional messages to the child:

1. You’re so incapable of accomplishing this challenge that someone else has to do it for
you.
2. There’s only one way to achieve success and you need me to get there.

Instead of strengthening their child’s chances of having a fulfilling and happy life, the teen’s self
esteem and self worth are weakened. Feelings of being inherently incompetent will most likely
lead to depression and anxiety in adulthood.

If as parents we don’t let our teens build confidence through direct experience, a chasm will
grow between what they’re able to do and what is expected of them, and between who they
really are (their true self) and who they feel they’re supposed to be (their false self).

We can’t give our teens fulfillment. They have to develop it themselves. ​Like the vine that needs support as it grows, we can be the trellis, but we can’t do their growing. All we can do is provide opportunities for our teens to have micro-successes ​and ​ micro-failures, and encourage them to learn from both experiences.

If you’re a parent of a teen and are feeling tempted (as we all do!) to make life “easier” for your
child so that they don’t have to experience disappointment, I encourage you to:

1. Nurture ​their ​ internal motivation, interests, and talents. 2. Support the process​ they ​ create​ ​ to achieve their goals. 3. Mirror their enthusiasm.
4. Encourage their independence.
5. Learn to tolerate your anxiety about our child’s future.
6. And always let them know, “I’m here for you.”

Let’s turn our shock and indignation about the Operation Varsity Blues scandal into a learning moment about another way to parent our teens​.

Let’s allow our teens to experience success ​and ​ failure so that their confidence, resilience, and internal motivation grow.

Let’s guide them to authentic success.

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