Tony Chau (right) and Julian Hernandez, who attend Claremont-McKenna College in California, are both “first generation” students. Neither was surprised to hear of the recent admissions scandal. ROBERT GAUTHIER / LOS ANGELES TIMES / TNS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Parents, failure isn’t always a bad thing

It’s been nearly two weeks since we first got wind of wealthy families allegedly paying college coaches and admission test insiders to rig the system and get their children admitted to top-tier universities.

Their schemes ranged from faking disabilities and athletic ability to downright bribery.

The more we heard, the more stunned we became.

But none of it was all that surprising, right?

I’d venture to say that most of us parents would do just about anything to ensure our children’s success, forgetting that a lot can be gained from failing.

Kelly Lambert, a mom, neuroscientist and psychology professor at the University of Richmond, says the two — success and failure — together are particularly important when it comes to a healthy and resilient brain.

What does that have to do with the recent college admissions scam? If you really love your children, actually a lot. Think about it. On the most basic level, what these parents did, what the orchestrator of this scam did, raises important issues about what we’re doing to the emotional resilience of our children.

“As parents, we need to look beyond the current moment of a child’s happiness and recognize the importance of teaching children that positive outcomes are the product of effort and hard work,” Lambert said. “The brain thrives on building a stockpile of authentic connections between effort and rewards.”

Research Lambert has done with rodents, she said, suggests that clear connections between behavior and outcomes are critical for healthy neural development and the emergence of rational decision-making. When rats work for their coveted rewards, say Froot Loops cereal pieces, they exhibit emotional resilience when they encounter future challenges. Alternatively, when trust fund rats are passively given their rewards, they develop more toxic stress hormone profiles and give up on problem-solving tasks sooner than the working rats with clearly established response-outcome contingencies.

RELATED: ‘Affluenza’ case sparks debate on justice, wealth

“I am always mindful of providing a safe landing for my daughters as they experience failure in their lives and are forced to recalculate their strategies and decisions,” Lambert said. “Although it’s never easy to see them upset, I take comfort in knowing that their contingency capital will be sufficient to carry them through life’s challenges when I’m no longer around to take care of them.”

If none of this makes sense to you, think back to Ethan Couch, the Texas teen who made international headlines after a Texas judge sentenced him to 10 years’ probation — not imprisonment — for causing a June 2013 crash near Fort Worth that left four people dead. The sentence touched off an emotional debate, focused mostly on the use of the term “affluenza,” suggesting he was too rich and spoiled to understand the consequences of his actions.

Kelly Lambert, psychology professor at the University of Richmond, says parents need to look beyond the current moment of their children’s happiness and recognize the importance of teaching them that positive outcomes are the product of effort and hard work. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Today, you might be buying junior’s way into college. Come tomorrow, you’ve got yourself an Ethan.

Lambert, author of the recent book “Well-Grounded,” which explores topics like “affluenza” and “snowplow parents,” parents who force obstacles out of their kids’ way, said mechanisms like privilege or celebrity hamper the brain’s ability to make informed decisions.

Clearly.

We rarely talk about parenting until something harmful like abuse or neglect is in the headlines, but experts say what these parents did is just as cruel because it amounts to psychological damage.

Dr. Kim Metcalfe, a retired professor of early childhood education and psychology, said this type of behavior is indicative of what happens when parents fail to practice self-regulation and, in the name of love, justify their bad behavior. Even worse, she said, this results in children growing into adults who are unable to accept responsibility for their actions or performance, leading to a plethora of problems later in life.

Truth is we’ve been primed for this sort of behavior. This is the system we have set up and accepted in our country.

RELATED: Parents had better start parenting again

Metcalfe grew up poor in the Bronx, but after earning a doctorate, she worked her way to associate professor in Early Childhood Education and Psychology at Riverside Community College District in California, where she remained until 2016.

It was there, she said, that she became familiar with the power that the wealthy and well-connected commonly used to gain access for kids who were unable to qualify for acceptance on their own merits.

“When corruption goes unchecked for so long that it becomes the norm in society, it should not surprise us when it becomes blatant,” Metcalfe said.

What’s the takeaway?

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“There are many, but the most important, which I fear will not be learned, is that we have allowed a monarchy system to develop in America,” she said. “A monarchy places people in positions of power, not because of their intellectual, creative, social and emotional expertise but because of who they were born to.”

The end result is an unhealthy, selfish society in which those who need help the most are destined to fail, though not for a lack of trying.

To fix this, developing healthy societies in which all children have the opportunity to develop to their full potential and share their genius with the world is a good place to start, Metcalfe said.

“We cannot provide those opportunities if we allow cheaters and liars to rob these opportunities from them,” she said. “I believe we must learn that every adult has a moral obligation to the young people in our society. We must demand fairness from our governing institutions.”

Her best advice for parents is to learn how to make real, meaningful connections with their kids, so they can stand on their own and succeed where it really matters.

“Our goal as a parent is to build resilient kids who are capable of failing and still come back better and stronger and more determined,” Metcalfe said. “This internal grit is the grit that kids need to live the lives they were born to live and should choose to live. All the money in the world cannot buy this.”

I have to believe we know this instinctively, but it’s high time we put it into practice.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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